Water polo begins quest for third straight division title


Photo courtesy of Alabama Water Polo

When most people — especially in the South — think of college sports, water polo isn’t exactly the first sport that comes to mind.

Unbeknownst to many on campus, the University of Alabama club water polo team provides an opportunity for students to play on an amateur athletics team that is achieving great success.

“It’s been really cool to represent The University of Alabama as well as to travel all around the Southeast Division,” said Chris Popiolek, the club president and a junior majoring in chemical engineering and pre-med. “It’s been really cool going all over the place, and I’ve definitely enjoyed it and I’ve made some really good friends from the team.”

Even though the team has only been around since 2010, it won back-to-back Southeastern Division titles in 2017 and 2018.

“It felt awesome, especially my freshman year,” Popiolek said. “We basically came out of nowhere and just ran the table and won the Southeast Division. And then last year we won again, and I think both years we were seeded.”

Now, after a long summer, the team is finally ready to get back in the water as it seeks its third straight division title. 

“I think we look great right now,” said Josh Troup, a junior majoring in microbiology and French. “We feel really confident about having a lot of power players on the team starting and on the bench. We just look strong.”

During the summer, one key aspect that the team focused on was recruiting. In many club sports, retaining players is a difficult task. Many players drop out of their respective sports to graduate, transfer or pursue other interests, leaving the team to try to find replacements on the roster.

Alabama water polo faced this challenge after last season. However, the team put together an extensive recruiting class, bringing in more than 30 new male and female members to the club.

“The first day I was shocked by how many freshmen we had turn out,” said Joe Tomashek, a senior majoring in chemical engineering and chemistry. “I would say we had around almost 30 people the first day of practice this year, which is just really good for a non-collegiate team. For recruiting by word of mouth, I think that was pretty good.”

With so many new faces, developing strong team chemistry can be difficult. However, the team goes to great lengths to build bonds between the players both in and out of the pool, including a Labor Day cookout at Troup’s house.

“I think we’re meshing really well, and it helps that we’ve played together for a couple of years, and actually quite a few of the guys have gone to the same high school as I have, so a lot of guys are from Naperville [Illinois],” Tomashek said. “The chemistry is definitely there. We know what each other are doing, and you can definitely see that. It definitely helps in the water and out of the water as well. We try to run practices and help each other out and coordinate things so it’s definitely a well-meshed team.”

Having fun is the main focus of the water polo team, but Troup said competition is also a major factor in building camaraderie among teammates.

“There’s a competitive sense to it, and we do really well when it comes to competition, but essentially we want to have fun,” Troup said. “We want to have fun when we go out to the tournaments, we want to have fun in practice and [do] well, and we just want to play it right.”

Even with the team’s recent success, it is no easy task competing against the talented clubs in the Southeast Division. The club frequently competes against teams like Ole Miss, Tennessee, Georgia, Georgia Tech and Clemson, which all have dedicated athletes with just as much determination as their Alabama counterparts.

While earning a third-straight Southeastern Division title is a key goal, the team has much loftier goals for the 2019 season. After finishing in the bottom half of the field at nationals the last two years, it’s hoping to improve its standing this time around.

“It’s not the performance we would like to do on a national level,” Tomashek said. “That’s a lot more difficult than the SEC, but our goal is to get into at least the top half, if not finish top five. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us because some of those California and other national teams are pretty good.”

The Alabama club water polo team starts its season on Saturday, Sept. 21, at a tournament in Huntsville, where the team will be competing against many SEC and ACC schools.