TALENT POOL: Swimmers Get Boost Playing On Valley West, Hazleton Area Water Polo Teams
PLYMOUTH — Valley West’s two seniors closed in on goal with no one in their way.
As Logan Siliekus got within a few feet, he reached back and fired a shot that slammed off the back of the goal. Trevor Ulch did the same, and the crowd and teammates watching all broke into applause and cheers.
These weren’t game-changing moments; the game was already over. Rather, it was a unique end to a senior day ceremony for the Spartans water polo team, in a sport that’s unlike others found in the Wyoming Valley Conference.
Siliekus and Ulch were honored following their recent loss to Hazleton Area, in the Spartans’ lone home game of the season. They got the chance to jump in the deep end, swim one more length of the Valley West pool and score one final goal.
Like most students, Siliekus hadn’t known the sport existed locally four years ago. But like most who get to try it out, it was tough to say goodbye.
“I can’t live without it,” Siliekus said. “It’s going to be tough next year, not doing it.”
Fortunately for the Spartans, a coed team this fall, they get the rare chance around the area to play water polo.
Valley West introduced water polo in 1995 — its girls team won a state championship in 1999 — and Hazleton Area has since joined the ranks. But, no other WVC school offers the sport.
Instead, the Spartans and Cougars play in the state’s three-division league, residing in its Central conference. Other schools include Wilson, Cumberland Valley, Governor Mifflin, Exeter, Muhlenberg, Reading, Mechanicsburg and Central York.
It would take some lengthy travel to play every Central team. So, Hazleton Area and Valley West play a tournament-heavy schedule to gain experience. If they’re a top-six team in the conference, they’ll qualify for the postseason, where each conference has its own tournament to determine the state field.
Siliekus didn’t have any aspirations to become a state champion water polo player back in 2015. He’d seen the sport on television during the Olympics, but didn’t take notice of it locally until he got talked into playing his freshman year as a warm-up for the swimming and diving season.
If water polo looks like a breeze above surface level, Siliekus quickly found out it’s far from it.
The sport isn’t too complicated — a goalie tries to defend his goal, and six teammates try to move a yellow ball toward the other net — but it is draining. Only the shallow-end goalie can touch the bottom of the pool, while everyone else is constantly treading water while defenders swarm them.
“I joined mid-season. They put me in the first game,” Siliekus said, “and I played 10 seconds and I tapped my head — I want out. It’s tough.”
Practice is no joke, either. Siliekus mentioned days where an hour of practice is followed by school and another workout.
“It’s dedication,” he said.
Still, there was something about the sport. Siliekus spoke of a competitive-yet-friendly nature to it, where teams are enemies between whistles but positive toward each other after. In fact, Hazleton Area’s team lined the pool during Valley West’s postgame senior ceremony.
Despite the rough introduction, Siliekus kept playing, and not just for the love of the game.
Water polo has its benefits for those who turn to the swimming and diving season right after. Hazleton Area coach George Maue — who played for a club while attending Indiana University of Pennsylvania — said the fast kicking and heads-up swimming especially favors sprinters.
That’s not the only way the sport helps.
Maue said the mere existence of Cougars water polo has helped boost their swimming and diving roster, especially on the boys side. The recent addition of a middle school team has only gotten more potential athletes in the pool early.
Both Maue and Valley West acting coach Michael McGinley expressed their hopes for the expansion of water polo among WVC schools for those reasons. Lack of experience hasn’t been an issue; Hazleton Area is used to not just showing new players the ropes, but teaching them how to swim, too.
“Unfortunately, it seems like in the WVC, boys swimming is very down. We found that ... it was easier to get boys to come out for water polo, and then they stayed on for the swim team,” Maue said.
“It’s not a lot,” said McGinley, who first played the sport on West Chester’s club team. “The pool’s already there (for) anybody that has a pool. It’s just the goals and the ball.”
Siliekus is hoping the extra hours his upper-body goes through in the fall can help him crack the one-minute barrier in the 100 breaststoke this winter.
Once he gets a chance to go for that milestone, though, his varsity water polo career will be in the rearview mirror.
He’s already taken his last shot at his home pool, a few years after the sport took him by surprise
“At first I didn’t even really want to do water polo,” he said. “But now, it’s just sad when you have to transition from water polo to swim season. I don’t know. It’s just something special about it.”
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