EAST LANSING, Mich. – East Lansing high school shares something in common with only 37 other high schools in Michigan: fielding a water polo team. The school combined with Holt high school to start the Holt/EL water polo club 12 years ago, leaving some students wondering what the somewhat-unfamiliar sport was all about.
Coach Ron Marsh has built a powerful program, with this year’s team ranked as high as No. 10 in the state. In the five years before Marsh took over, the club was lucky to win half its games each season.
“When I came in, they were happy if they could win five games a season,” Marsh said. “There was no stability, they were going through a different coach every year.”
Marsh knew he could change the culture.
“It takes time to build a team,” Marsh said. “This wasn’t going to be a two-year turnaround, it took six years to build up to the team we have now, where we have a steady group of guys coming through every year.”
Water polo has started being offered as a club sport in middle school, which has made building the team easier. They are able to now field a junior varsity and a varsity team. But in the beginning, Marsh recruited by telling the boys it would keep them in shape and make them faster for swim team season.
Senior captain Jerry Sweitzer wished he would have started playing water polo sooner.
“I joined the team my sophomore year after hearing about it through swim team,” Sweitzer said. “My biggest regret is not getting to play my freshman year.”
Junior Zach Sneathen is a veteran player.
“I was badgered by my swim coach in seventh grade to join the water polo team,” Sneathen said. “I didn’t like it until I played my first game, now I really enjoy it.”
Water polo teams have a lot of freedom with the number of games they play each season. In his first year, Marsh’s team only played 10 games. This year it played 40 and went to several tournaments.
“You get better through competition, but you have to build the confidence first,” Marsh said. “We went from playing 25 games last season to 40 this season, because I knew they were ready. That doesn’t happen over night.”
Marsh coaches kids from all over the area, all year long. For his team to be competitive, the work can’t stop just because the season is over.
“We really only take one week off between summer polo and the start of the high school season, Marsh said. “They have to constantly practice or else that first tournament is brutal, and they know that.”
Because water polo is still a growing sport in Michigan, Marsh sends his team to the west coast for competition during the summer.
“It’s no secret that every top 10 team plays all season long,” Marsh said. “Once swim season is over we start spring polo, against other schools that have put teams together. In the summer they swim in the morning and play polo at night, and I send them out to California to play in tournaments.”
Aside from mechanics the key to having success in any team sport, according to Marsh, is maturity, knowing their role and having good leadership.
“I’ve sat almost every player on the team for at least a quarter of a game,” Marsh said. “They sit until they realize that it is not about them, it is about the team.”
Another thing Marsh has put together is a senior council, made up of the teams two senior captains and two juniors who Marsh feels are strong leaders. The council is in charge of solving all the problems going on within the team, and if they do need Marsh to get involved he works with them to make a decision and then the council addresses the team.
“I can teach mechanics all day long but the hardest thing for any coach today is attitude and maturity,” Marsh said. “I worked long and hard with these guys, to make sure they are mature enough to listen to their peers, and it works. But it wouldn’t have two years ago.”
Sweitzer said the success of the team comes from good communication.
“Last year we lost some good players but we were ready to step up,” Sweitzer said. “From the time we are on junior varsity, it is drilled into us what we have to do to keep the success of the team alive.”
Sneathen credits the team’s success to the time spent together out of the pool.
“Coach has help us build a strong bond,” Sneathen said. “One of the big reasons we have such a great dynamic is, we spend a ton of time together even when we are not in the pool, which helps us really play as a unit.”