A combination of wrestling and swimming, with the skills of basketball and soccer mixed in, water polo has been played at Phillips Exeter Academy since 1971 and their current season is in full swing.
The team has won 22 New England championships, including 2012. A girls varsity team, which plays in the spring, was launched in 2001, and with the boys are the only varsity high-school water-polo programs in New Hampshire.
Water polo players have two basic goals when they take to the pool: One, do whatever it takes to help their team win, and two, try not to get drowned by the opponent.
Don Mills has been helping his team do just that since 2005. He says a number of his players started out as competitive swimmers, but the better water-polo players are ones with a team-sport background.
"Of course, they have to have the ability to swim," says Mills. "You don't have to be, like I tell these guys, you don't have to be a fast swimmer to be good at water polo, you just have to be very aware."
Senior captain J.B. Baker says since a lot of the action happens underwater, out of the watchful eye of the officials, it can lead to some situations not often found in land-based sports.
"Basically anything goes underwater, because the ref can't see it," says Baker. "That way, it can be a pretty dirty game. A couple of times I had my suit pulled down, which was pretty surprising the first time, pretty embarrassing."
New Hampshire is far from a water-polo hotbed. Usually only seen on television during the Olympic games, the sport is most popular at the varsity high-school and college level in places such as California and Florida.
The Exeter boys varsity includes a number athletes who never played water polo before enrolling. That includes senior co-captain Joe Shepley
"I was originally a swimmer, so it combines something that I was used to doing, something that I excelled at, and it turns it into a sport with a ball, which makes it a lot more fun," Shepley says.
Senior co-captain Nick du Pont says water polo is more about the full-body experience than swimming is. It involves the torso, the shoulders, the legs and the arms. And a player can use only one hand on the ball at one time.
"It's definitely grueling when you're in the pool," says du Pont. "Not only to you have to float, you have to keep yourself afloat while other people are trying to drown you and swimming up and down the pool to play the ball. While you're holding the ball up, you can only use one hand, or even no hands at times. So we do a lot of conditioning."
Coach Mills says although the games include only 32 minutes of action, trying to pass and score while keeping your head above water can pose a challenge for even the most well-conditioned players.
"One colleague of mine who works in the phys ed department here at the school, compared it to playing basketball with someone trying to drown you the entire time," Mills says.
One advantage the Exeter team has over some of its opponents is that its home pool is deep from end to end. While some other schools play in a pool that is shallow at one and, as Nick du Pont explains, the extra conditioning from practicing and hosting opponents in their pool definitely gives the Exeter team an advantage.
"It definitely does," says du Pont. "It's nice to be able to invite an opponent over here and have them struggle with not being able to touch the bottom. We're used to practicing here every day. We never get to rest at the bottom of the pool. But if we're playing at another pool, we have an extra level of conditioning."
But all the hard work and practice can take a toll. Coach Mills says not only must players commit to a full schedule of practices and games, they must keep up with a rigorous academic workload.
"Obviously, the training is pretty demanding so they get tired," he says. "They want to go to sleep instead of doing their homework."
Since the team plays all of its away games out of state, coach Mills said the team often spends entire Saturdays on the road, leaving the players just one day to finish homework and prepare for Monday classes.
Exeter goes for its second straight New England championship on November 9th.