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Water Polo Splashes Into First Year

Varsity boys are aiming for state
Photo by Matteo Winandy
During water polo practice freshman Slova Walker, freshman Cainan Cohen, junior Max Nguyen, freshman Suleman Aziz, freshman Jacob Duong, freshman Zach Slaughter, junior GB Stalnaker, senior Luka Zivaljevic, sophomore Jake Melley and senior Roman Duong scrimage. Stalmaker only started playing water polo two months ago, but has been competitively swimming since he was seven-years-old. “I love the team – the guys are always helpful, motivated and very dedicated,” Stalnaker said. “I know the second I get in the water for the game those guys have my back.”

Senior Luka Zivaljevic started playing water polo in fourth grade over the summer in Kotr, Montenegro because of his dad.

“I hated it at first,” Zivaljevic said. “I was forced to go to practice and then I started to fall in love with the sport.”

In middle school, Zivaljevic and his friends started playing water polo with the Pegasus Aquatics water polo club team, which had been started in the fall of 2016.

“I had been training with [those friends] for the past two or three years,” Zivaljevic said.

At the beginning of his senior year, Zivaljevic started his first year of water polo at the high school as a captain for the boys’ water polo team. 

“It feels really good to be a captain,” Zivaljevic said. “It’s adrenaline-rushing in the mornings. I feel like I have a lot of responsibility to prepare [the team] for state championships coming up and for all of the district and regional [championships].” 

In 2019, water polo was approved by the legislative council of University Interscholastic League. The start of the season was supposed to start the fall of 2021, but because of the pandemic, it was pushed back to Aug. 1, 2022.

“I had been requesting for seven or eight years every year that water polo become an official sport,” head water polo Coach Chris Cullen said. “[To begin the season], I did a few introductory camps and practices in the summer, but I was hired kind of late, so I didn’t get to do anything in the spring where I could try to get some interest up.”

Cullen has been coaching water polo since 1999 in Denton, TX. Ready for a new change, he came back to Highland Park and taught swimming, chemistry and elementary school physical education.

It’s adrenaline-rushing in the mornings. I feel like I have a lot of responsibility to prepare [the team] for state championships coming up and for all of the district and regional [championships].

— Luka Zivaljevic

“I had always wanted to come back to Highland Park,” Cullen said. “That would’ve been my dream job at 23 as the Highland Park swimming coach, but now it just came back in a different format with doing water polo. It’s been a lot of fun.”

The water polo team has started off strong for varsity boys. They are currently undefeated with 10 wins, no losses and one tie.

“I have a core group [of] varsity boys that have been playing together for a long time,” Cullen said. “We’re beating some of the best teams in the state so far. We’re actually ranked second in the state in the coaches poll this past week.”

The varsity girls are 3-7, winning their last two games Aug. 27. For their first game, they had the minimum seven players needed for the team. 

“Now we’re up to 10 or 11,” Cullen said. “Now we have some subs. We have a good mix of girls who have some experience and girls who have no experience so we’re learning and developing. I [am] very happy [that] we’re making good progress.”

One of those girls is captain junior Campbell Schultz. She stopped playing basketball and soccer because of her interest in playing water polo.

“I like how aggressive it is,” Schultz said. “I like how it’s a team sport, I like how it’s in the water because I’m not the most coordinated person and I like how it is a combination of all of the sports I’ve done.”

As the season continues, both Cullen and the assistant water polo Coach William Marshall have set goals for each team. For the girls, they want to have a solid playoff run.

“[The girls’] first few weeks [they] played the team that won state twice last year, [they] played the team that got second in state the last three years and so they had to play very tough teams right off the bat, so now they’re starting to grow from those experiences,” Cullen said. 

However, the coaches have a different direction as far as goals go for varsity boys. They are aiming for state.

“We’re going to do our best and I think if we don’t win state, I want to have a deep playoff run so that we’re making progress and getting better every game,” Cullen said. “The boys have been successful really early so we need to keep up the hard work and intensity.”

One final goal that they are striving for with both teams is developing a sense of teamwork and companionship.

“[We want to] come together as a team [and] get the program going in the right direction since it’s the first year,” Marshall said. “We’ve got a lot of kids who’ve never played water polo, so getting them comfortable in the sport, [striving for] growth on the individual level and then as a team.”

About the Contributor
Elle Polychronis
Elle Polychronis, Managing editor
What are you looking forward to on the staff this year? I’m looking forward to leading the staff and making deeper connections with the staff! What are your favorite TV shows/movies? I love watching Emily In Paris and The Crown! What are your hobbies? I love to travel around the world, shop for makeup and clothes, and spend time with my family and friends and especially my dog!