Rivals combine in water polo

By: Timothy Pontzer, | Troy Times | Published October 6, 2017

While blood may be thicker than water, in Troy, the water serves as a strong bond, bringing together bitter rivals.

In its third year of existence, the Troy United water polo team combines a roster of Red Hawks and Colts to literally and figuratively shoot for a common goal.

“Once the kids are here, they become a team,” United coach Jack Johansson said. “I’ve had no issues with the rivalry. In fact it is great to see them come together. A lot of water polo is conditioning, and when you start sweating, hurting and working hard with a teammate, he’s your guy no matter where he’s from.”

Johansson joked that sometimes parents from the two sides will bicker, but he’s pleased with the way his group becomes one unit. A 1982 graduate of Troy, Johansson is in his first year as the head coach of the program. He also brings experience from a different joint venture, serving as an assistant with the Troy United rugby club the past four seasons.

“As a Troy graduate, I obviously was not very friendly to Athens,” Johansson said laughingly. “But my years with the rugby team changed that. I was really impressed with Athens. The administration treats us great and they have a very good athletic program. So, this has been easy to do because of my natural affection for Troy and my earned respect for Athens.”

While he helms the squad, Johansson has limited experience in the sport itself. During his time at Troy, Johansson was a standout track and cross country runner, but he never dipped in the pool.

His connection to water polo came when his four daughters each played at Troy High. For a decade, he watched Lauren, Emily, Sarah and Elise play goalie for the Colts, ending with Elise’s graduation in 2014. Emily now helms the Troy High varsity girls water polo team and Elise serves as Johansson’s assistant and JV coach with the United group.

When Beth Boher stepped down from the team to coach the Athens swim team, Johansson volunteered to take the post despite his limited knowledge.

“I was just a parent watching and getting involved was a way to stay close with my girls,” Johansson said. “I was honest with the parents of the kids. I didn’t know much about water polo, but I know how to get and encourage athletic performances from young men.”

Johansson relishes the role, praising his student-athletes for their character and determination.

“One of the best things about water polo is the type of kids that play it,” Johansson said. “They’re goal-oriented kids and really sharp. They’re high-caliber individuals who are self motivated and usually have a high GPA. They’re fabulous and are willing to be coached.”

Under Johansson’s leadership, United has already made great strides. The 2016 campaign saw the group lose every single match, but this season has already resulted in two victories at press time.

“One of the challenges is some of these boys have swam before, but a great number of them have never played an athletic sport before,” Johansson explained. “They’re not familiar with the intensity needed to compete at a varsity level. Some almost had a gym-class mentality. I just want to teach them the joy of competition as opposed to just showing up.”

Johansson prides himself on his approach, never berating a player for a bad performance. Instead, he promotes an encouraging environment and highlights the successes of each individual.

“I’ve read recently that youth sports as a whole are struggling, but all of the good aspects of youth sports are demonstrated by this team,” Johansson said. “We’re about participation, getting the best out of the boys and teaching them the game. We work really hard to be positive all the time.”

Johansson’s roster is evenly split, with 10 coming from Athens, nine from Troy and 10 hailing from the International Academy.

“It’s awesome because we have three schools, so that means more talent,” said Troy sophomore Sid Lakhani.

The combined effort came about after low turnout from Troy prompted a merger with Athens, despite the Red Hawks having a consistent number of kids to fill out the team.

“At first it kind of bothered me, but early on you could see the benefits,” said Athens senior Victor Harris.

Harris has spent four years with the team, playing his freshman year on the Athens-only side. Now a team captain, he likes the fact the schools are brought together.

“You get to know more people from Troy and experience something that I would’ve never gotten only at Athens,” Harris explained. “We talk about the football games and stuff, but we’re not rivals. We’re all one team here.”

With a third of the team from the International Academy (IA), many from the school are happy to get a chance to shed the label of only being known for academics.

“This gives a lot of IA kids a chance to do a sport and be active, something we don’t have,” said IA sophomore Dylan Nguyen. “We try to prove that we can go out there and play, not just be the smart guy on a team.”

Johansson has worked hard to keep things balanced, practicing the first half of the week at Troy before switching over to Athens. The six home games were also evenly split between the two campuses.

“We’re building a team that is proud to work together,” Johannson said.