Central York helps to grow water polo in York County

Patrick Strohecker
  • Central York water polo was founded in 2009.
  • The team has close to 30 members on it, enough for both a boys' and girls' team.
  • This is the third year Central has operated as a PIAA-sanctioned program.

Craig Eckbold grew up in Delaware, where water polo wasn't a big thing,

Still, he developed a deep-rooted passion for the sport.

When he went off to college, he played for Millersville's club program — one of the oldest in the nation — for a year. After that, he transferred to Delaware, where he helped start a water polo program at the school.

Central York High School's Emma Alloway passes the ball during water polo practice at the school in Springettsbury Township, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

After graduating, Eckbold moved back to Pennsylvania, where he reached out to Mechanicsburg High School about a coaching job. That school then put him in touch with Central York. At the time, Central had just built its pool at the new high school. It was a way for Eckbold to bring his knowledge of water polo to York County.

Seven years later, the program has flourished as the county's only PIAA water polo team.

"It was sort of fate coming through because it was the first year they could have anything here," Eckbold said. "It happened to be the first year I was in the area and just kind of started a program with nobody else in the area having water polo."

Starting from scratch: There's nothing easy when it comes to starting a program from scratch.

That goes for basketball, band or even dancing. For a niche sport such as water polo, which only gains widespread attention every four years during the Olympics, beginning a club from nothing poses an even greater challenge. Eckbold has now done that on two separate occasions.

Officially, Central water polo has been around since 2009. However, in that first year, it was a handful of willing participants who would go to the pool every day and learn the basics of the sport. By the spring of the following year, that's when Eckbold finally had enough participants to field a club team for the spring season. One of his players then, Seth Davies, now serves as one of his assistants.

That's the way the program went for the first four years until it finally became a PIAA-sanctioned sport in 2014. The program now has the potential to qualify and play for a state title.

Growth of the program: One member of the team, senior Ben Graybill, first got involved with the team when he entered high school. A swimmer for most of his childhood, Graybill got tired of simply swimming laps and was turned on to the game by a friend who was a senior on the water polo team. When he first went out for the team, it was still trying to gain attention among the students, only having enough boys and girls to form one co-ed team.

Now, in the span of four years, there are enough boys and girls that Central has separate boys' and girls' teams. Each team can have six players and a goalie in the pool at one time.

"We have about 16 guys and our own guys' team and around 10 girls, who have their own girls' team," he said.

The sport: The physicality of the sport, which normally can't be seen unless you peek below water level, makes it one of the most demanding activities around. Players often grab, punch and kick on defense. The players also tread water for the duration of the game, while also trying to find the best way to make a pass and score. The demanding nature of the sport also makes it one of the shorter seasons, spanning a little more than two months, from the end of August until the early part of November.

The physicality, however, is what keeps many players coming back for more. Eckbold said he's coached countless players who enjoyed the thrill of giving and receiving hard knocks from the opposition. For junior Emma Alloway, she loves the team aspect of it and the  exercise it offers.

"It's a big stress reliever and a different form of exercise," she said. "It's swimming, but it's more involved. It's more of a team sport, which is a lot more fun than individual swimming."

Central York High School's Ryan Lordan looks to pass the ball during water polo practice at the school in Springettsbury Township, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The future: Eckbold said he's now trying to expand the game into the middle-school ranks.

The toughest part about beginning a water polo team, aside from attracting the first wave of players, is finding that second generation of athletes. He pointed to a school such as Cumberland Valley, which has had players competing together since they were 8. It's a reason why the Eagles are one of the best programs in the state. That's what he's hoping to create at Central. Right now, the Panthers are 5-6 on the boys' side, while the girls are 3-8.

Currently, the Central team is  viewed as a club sport by the high school, meaning it doesn't get any funding from the district. The teams car-pool to away games, all of which are outside  York County. Eckbold is hoping that within a couple of years, he'll get the program to a point where it will be recognized as a full varsity sport by the school, meaning it will receive funding and buses for away games.

One of the encouraging signs of growth for the sport within York County is that during the spring club season, athletes from other schools will go to Central to play. One girl, Caitlyn Rau, a junior at Northeastern High, attends all of the team's fall practices, goes through the team's out-of-pool workouts and serves as a de facto coach while she waits for her turn in the pool come spring time.

The Central water polo team has come a long way in the seven years since Eckbold arrived. Someday, it might not be the only team in York County, and that'll be a good day for everyone in the area who loves the sport.

"The end goal is to be like Reading," Eckbold said. "Reading is the hot-bed of Pennsylvania water polo. It has like five or six schools that play, all within a 10-minute radius of each other. So, if York could be Reading, Part 2, that'd be amazing."

— Reach Patrick Strohecker at pstrohecker@yorkdispatch.com