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Forest Grove water polo team succeeds without much fanfare

Vikings' coed water polo squad attracts players searching for a unique sporting experience


Photo Credit: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: AMANDA MILES - Forest Grove senior Katie Hertel competes in a water polo match against Hillsboro on Nov. 3. The water polo team flies under the radar but the players enjoy great camaraderie. A few weeks ago, the Forest Grove football and cross-country and soccer and volleyball teams were going about wrapping up their campaigns.

But, quietly, so was another squad, one that tends to generate not quite as much fanfare.

It is small enough that some students at the high school likely aren’t even aware it exists. In addition to its small roster size of 12 this year, the squad does not even practice on campus — though there is good reason for that.

To check out these Vikings, you would need to wander over to the Forest Grove Aquatic Center on fall afternoons to catch a glimpse of the water polo team.

Water polo is certainly a bit of an under-the-radar sport in Oregon. After all, it is a seemingly strange amalgam of elements from swimming, soccer, hockey and basketball with some rugby-esque physicality thrown in.

“It’s just this weird combination of sports put together,” noted Neil Borzcik, who just wrapped up his fourth season as head coach at Forest Grove, where he teaches science.

“It’s incredibly physically demanding. It will take a lot out of you — to the point where during the season you’re going to be exhausted — but it’s really rewarding. Once you get in that shape, it’s actually really fun to play.”

At the high school level, water polo is not sanctioned by the OSAA, which governs most sports in the state, but rather by the Oregon High School Water Polo Committee, which stages state tournaments each November at the end of the season.

That odd duck status doesn’t mean, however, that the sport lacks in history and legacy here. Some Oregon high schools have been fielding programs for decades, and alumni have garnered success at the college and international levels. (Prominently, Beaverton grad Elsie Windes took home gold with the women’s national team at the 2012 Olympics.)

Katie, Libby and Annie Hertel are part of that legacy — and a great boon to the Vikings program.

Collectively, the Hertel sisters accounted for one quarter of the Forest Grove roster this fall, as well as three of its four girls.

Currently, the boys and girls play together on one team and compete against boys teams, because there are not enough players to form separate sides. The girls’ mother, Lynda Hertel, formerly played water polo at Beaverton.

That background helped Katie, now a senior, go out for the team as a freshman, when she was transitioning from tiny St. Francis in Banks to the much larger high school in Forest Grove and was looking for a way to make friends.

She found them on the water polo team.

“She’s tried basketball and all kinds of different sports, and none of them really clicked for her, but boy, water polo is just her passion,” Lynda said.

Libby followed the next year — she is a crack deep-end goalie, even against hard-throwing boys — and Annie made it three Hertels this year.Photo Credit: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: AMANDA MILES - Katie Hertel is honored along with Forest Grove's other seniors during a pregame ceremony Nov. 3.

Though the team is small, the Hertels’ story is far from the only interesting one on it. Slovakian exchange student Tomas Stofik enhanced his American experience by joining, and Katie Hertel and Albert Grigorov are two of the school’s three students this year to earn Commended Students honors in the National Merit Scholarship program. (The third, interestingly, is cross-country and track and field star Rubi Vergara-Grindell.)

And then there is Andrew O’Donnell, one of the team’s top players this year as a senior newbie.

Basketball is his main sport, but he grew up in a swimming family and had long said he would try water polo as a senior. He did, and though he needed a couple weeks to get his sea legs under him — conditioning is an integral part of the sport — he blossomed into the team’s leading scorer.

He would go out again next year, if he could, he said, calling it a “genuinely fun experience.”

“I’d say that it gets you in shape,” O’Donnell said. “I’d say it’s really tiring, but it’s really fun when you score, and it’s really fun when you block a shot.”

But that’s only part of the fun.

What O’Donnell, Borzcik, and Lynda and Katie Hertel all touched on was the people — the squad’s camaraderie, how it’s a diverse, close-knit bunch that gathers for team dinners and just plain enjoys each other’s company.

Which is only perhaps the best part of high school sports.

“It’s your own little group of friends,” Katie said. “You will always be friends with these people. If you choose to still be friends with them, they’ll still be friends with you, because water polo’s an experience like nothing else.”

Note: Though the 2015 season is eight-plus months away, the team is always looking for more players. For more information, contact the athletics office at 503-359-2437.

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