SPARTA, NJ – In one of the most idyllic outdoor settings imaginable, three youth clubs from metropolitan New York recently jumped into the Lake Mohawk Country Club pool — nestled in semi-rural northern New Jersey — for an experience almost unheard of in the East: water polo outdoors.
“We knew some kids in the community that play water polo… and thought it’d be a great experience for them,” said organizer Granger Abuhoff about the allure of fresh air and blue skies for U15 players from the Brooklyn Heights St. Francis (BHSF) and Y Pro clubs based in Brooklyn and St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark, NJ.
Abuhoff, a Brooklyn-based masters player, arranged for a full Saturday rental of the privately owned pool for the youth tournament in the morning and an adult tournament in the afternoon.
On this day youth was served. By playing outside approximately 50 players experienced the sport the way most of the polo-playing world typically does. Abuhoff understood just how foreign that experience might be.
“I grew up playing like them — shallow-deep in weird places,” he said. “It’s a totally different game when you’re playing outdoors. There’s the sun, there’s the temperature, there’s cold water.”
Both Brooklyn clubs play indoors year round; Y Pro in a shallow-deep pool in Sheepshead Bay and BHSF swims underground in the St. Francis Brooklyn pool. The Lake Mohawk setting was a novelty for coaches and players alike.
“We’re used to being two floors underground and hearing the subway rattling versus being outdoors and hearing birds chirping,” said Bosko Stankovic, the BHSF coach.
“A lot of kids were surprised; they’ve never seen this environment before [which is] normal for water polo,” explained Stankovic, who grew up playing outdoors in Serbia. “It should be played outside; that’s the point of water polo. Your get to be in the sun, it’s beautiful.”
Elijah Fox, who has played for BHSF the past five years, was awestruck by the experience.
“Once I got over the initial shock of the pool being perhaps the coldest water I’ve ever swum in, I was taken by the raw authenticity of playing under the sun,” Fox said. “While this was not like the ocean, being out there under the son, playing outdoors in the open air was a really special experience.”
The Olympic-sized pool, with two inflatable goals tethered in the middle, was a “good experience” for Irakli Sanadze’s Y Pro team, which has competed outdoors in Florida. But the June 18th experience left him lamenting his own cramped indoor facility inside a YHMA.
“This is a wide, long pool. We don’t have this luxury in our facility,” said the Y Pro coach. “I wish we could have more pools like this in New York.”
Vlad Silver, whose son Michael plays for Y Pro, echoed Sanadze’s sentiment.
“The environment?” Silver replied when asked about being in such a beautiful setting. “I feel envy because we have a really limited practice facility [in Sheepshead Bay].”
Spencer Vespoli, the St. Benedict’s Prep coach, agreed that despite the “really cold” water, his players enjoyed the opportunity to face new competition. With their own pool to practice in three to four times a week, it is a lack of local competition, insufficient financing and inexperienced players — and not pool access — that hamstrings the Gray Bees.
New Jersey has only four other high schools that compete in the sport — Lawrenceville Prep, Pennington Prep, The Pingry School and St. Peter’s Prep — while St. Benedict’s struggles to make ends meet for a population that receives substantial scholarship support.
“The issue I run into with my guys is competition — because they really can’t afford anywhere else to go,” said Vespoli, who played at St. Benedict’s before going on to play club polo at Bowdoin in Maine.
“Some of these guys I taught how to swim less than a year ago,” he said. On top of that they’re not able to go to California — or even the American Water Polo stuff in Villanova [because of the cost].”
For this one morning, all three coaches could agree with Y Pro’s Sanadze: the setting couldn’t be better.
“Referee, kids, we have perfect goals; everything we need is here’” he said.
Granger Abuhoff —the man who made this all possible — is already planning on a second act, having spoken to the Lake Mohawk pool’s owners about a return next year. If so, more than just the players will benefit; the profile of Eastern water polo will perhaps be elevated, too.
“I can’t believe I’m actually refereeing in shorts in New Jersey in a beautiful surrounding like this with lots of young kids playing,” said referee Alex Stankevitch, who just returned from working the FINA World League Women 2016 – Super Final in Shanghai, China. “I’ve never seen a set up like this on the East Coast, period.”