Under-the-radar Central York water polo teams making unprecedented splash in pool

RYAN VANDERSLOOT
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  • The Central York water polo teams are enjoying unprecedented success this season.
  • The girls' team is 13-6, while the boys' program is 10-9.
  • Both teams are hoping to qualify for postseason action.

There’s a sports program at Central York High School that’s enjoying unprecedented success so far this fall.

The program in question isn’t the high-profile football team, although the unbeaten Panthers are again piling up the wins on the gridiron. And no, it’s not the girls’ volleyball team either, or the boys’ and girls’ soccer programs or the field hockey squad, even though all of those programs are performing  well this fall, too.

Water polo practice at Central York High School in Springettsbury Township, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

There’s yet another Central York program — one that’s only been around for about a decade — that’s drawing some statewide attention.

After years of taking their lumps as an upstart, under-the-radar outfit, the boys’ and girls’ water polo teams are on the verge of qualifying for the postseason this year.

The Central girls have been especially successful, sporting a 13-6 record heading into Wednesday’s match against Reading, including a triumph in Flight 3 of the Beast of the East tournament a few weeks ago. The Panthers appear bound for postseason girls’ action.

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“The girls, coming from never having more than three wins in a season to winning Flight 3 of the Beast of the East and being poised to make a potential run in the playoffs is crazy,” Central coach Craig Eckbold said.

After a 4-0 start to the season, the boys’ team has faced a slew of tougher foes of late but still stands at 10-9. Even with a slump that saw the team fall under the .500 mark at one point, Eckbold is somewhat optimistic that his boys’ team also could make the postseason.

“The state of boys’ water polo in the area and in the state is pretty solid,” Eckbold said. “Every team we face has got studs and swimmers. This is the greatest boys’ team that we’ve ever had, yet they still are kind of running into a buzzsaw against some pretty high-level programs.”

York County’s only participating school: None of those other programs, however, hail from York County — a fact that Eckbold isn’t afraid to joke about.

“We’re the five-time undefeated York County champions,” he said with a laugh.

Central is the only local school to sponsor varsity water polo.

Their opponents: The Panthers play in what is called the Central Conference, which fields teams from all around District 3 and beyond.

Some of CY’s rivals include Cumberland Valley, Mechanicsburg and Muhlenberg, which was the program that  handed both the Panther boys and girls their first losses of the season.

“Muhlenberg is pretty good,” Eckbold said. “I think they’re going to be No. 2 or 3 in the conference this year.”

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That’s a position that Eckbold dreams of leading the Panthers to in the not-so-distant future. After starting as a club program, the Panthers have been playing as a varsity program for eight years and have been a fully recognized and funded varsity sport by the district for three years.

Athletes warm up during water polo practice at Central York High School in Springettsbury Township, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

A struggle to recruit players: Eckbold admits it’s been a struggle to recruit players to join the program. Competing against football, volleyball and soccer in the fall is a challenge. So, too, is the fact that water polo is a sport people generally only see once every four years in the Olympics.

Seeing the sport live in the Olympics is a double-edged sword for many high school students. While it is fun to watch, the level of competition is so high that it can drive kids away from taking up the sport.

“People see that (the Olympics) and just say, ‘well I can’t play at that level,’” he said. “And it’s just, no, duh. Olympic-level water polo is just like a completely different sport. Everyone is as fast as each other, and you have guys with cannon arms.”

Eckbold, however, just flat-out loves the sport at the high school level because he feels it is actually better competition than you can find on television.

“I love high school water polo all that much more,” he said. “Everybody is just slow enough that there’s openings and gaps for players to drive through. In the Olympics, those are closed in a half-second.”

Headed in the right direction: While it may take several more years before the Panthers programs are as heralded as other regional teams, such as Wilson, Reading, Governor Mifflin and Cumberland Valley, Eckbold believes he has the program headed in the right direction.

Senior Ashley Berman, 17, during water polo practice at Central York High School in Springettsbury Township, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

“Yeah, we’re still a developing program,” CY senior Ashley Berman said. “When I started playing three years ago, it was definitely a smaller program than it is right now. And the program is growing such that we now have a full JV and varsity team.”

Berman, whose older sister Sarah starred on the CY girls’ basketball team, shares her coach’s optimism about the future, even if she won’t be there to see it herself.

“There’s a lot more interest in it,” she said. “This is our first winning season, and we’re actually starting to compete with some of the teams that we’re playing now.”

Berman is a leader: Berman has been a big reason for that, according to Eckbold.

“She’s our senior captain,” he said. “And she’s the straw that stirs the drink so to speak. She’s just a ball of energy. Constantly moving, and by her moving and driving, that opens things up a lot of other girls to get open and get free.”

On the boys’ side, Eckbold can rely on more than one Ethan.

“We have so many Ethans,” he said with a laugh. “We have four — Miller, Swartz, Rower and Suppiah. So, I have to use last names with them.”

If the CY boys do finish either fifth or sixth in the conference, the postseason play-in game for the boys is slated for Oct. 23 at location yet to be determined.

— Reach Ryan Vandersloot at sports@yorkdispatch.com.