Something big is rolling in from California, and it’s not warm weather and a surfboard.
For the past 50 years, water polo has been a sport popularized by high schools and colleges on the West Coast, but just recently, the game has gained momentum elsewhere in the U.S. Michigan’s water polo program, in converting its women’s club team to varsity three years ago, helped put the Midwest on the map as an alternate location for fans and players.
Just look to the women’s team and there is evidence of this trend. Coach Matt Anderson and nearly half of the players hail from California.
“In California, (water polo) is really competitive,” sophomore Sheetal Narsai said. “Everyone wants to be wearing the t-shirts from UCLA, Berkeley, Stanford and Southern Cal, but the reputation that Michigan has built up is going to bring people here.”
But it is not just Michigan’s growing water polo program that is drawing players.
“I came to Michigan for the academics, for the atmosphere, and for the reputation,” Narsai said. “Water polo just fell into it.”
In fact, Narsai says the only thing she misses about her hometown of Commerce, Calif. is getting to wear tube tops and high heels all year.
Junior Julie Nisbet from Santa Barbara, Calif. said Michigan was always her first choice.
“It was a good opportunity for me to come to a really good school academically and to play a sport,” Nisbet said. “I know that Michigan water polo is going to become a force in this nation, and I’m glad I get to be part of something that’s so big.”
While Narsai and Nisbet have had the chance to play competitively in high school and now Michigan’s varsity program, their coach was around when water polo wasn’t top priority.
Anderson played water polo on his high school team, but wasn’t so lucky at his alma mater, San Jose State.
“The school I went to dropped water polo because of Title IX,” Anderson said, “Eighteen years later, I’m coaching women’s water polo because of Title IX.”
Anderson believes that even though he had to stop playing the sport because of Title IX, the regulation has been the driving force in elevating more and more college club teams to varsity level. Economics are also an issue.
“Water polo is a somewhat elite sport,” Narsai said. “It’s not like basketball where you can just go outside and play, you need facilities and you need money.”
Water polo programs are popping up other places besides the Midwest too.
“Florida has some good programs,” Anderson said. “Maryland, New Jersey, Texas (and) Utah also have programs. I think you can develop water polo anywhere in the nation if you believe enough in the game and in the players.”
For now though, it appears outside of the Golden State, becoming a Wolverine is still the favorite alternative.
“The athletic tradition of Michigan is almost impossible to beat,” Anderson said. “You combine that with the fact that there is a sport out here that’s treated equally amongst all the others – yeah, we have a lot of interest from West Coast players.”