By Rick Assad
Not many people consider water polo to be a physical sport like football, and they would be wrong, because a great deal of play is under water.
When Harry Zekowski, a four-year water polo player at Burroughs High that included his junior and senior season on the varsity, splashes into the pool, he knows it’s going to be a battle and that’s exactly what he likes.
“I think I stand out in the pool simply because of my physicality. I’ve always had an aggressive play style, and in high school at least, I never found someone who could guard me as a two-meter player, except for a group of guys I can count on one hand,” he said. “That just lent itself to becoming what many have described as the most dominant set player in our [Pacific] League, and arguably one of the top three in our CIF Southern Section Division IV.”
While fighting, pushing and shoving aren’t allowed, there is always a way to get in a better scoring position, just like basketball.
“In the sport, I think my success comes from my physicality. Prior to this, I played a bunch of other sports and martial arts, which has definitely made me no stranger to physical contact,” admitted Zekowski, who has a 4.4 grade-point average and was accepted to Oregon State University and the University of Colorado, but neither have a men’s water polo team, opted instead to play at Golden West College where he will play water polo and major in Business Administration. “In fact, it has become one of the things I love most about the sport. The level of “brutality” as some of my coaches say I bring to the field is very European in polo terms, and ultimately the source of my success, and while there are many set players that will turn their defenders, few will flip them; some say I’m a wrestler at heart.”
As a top-level player, Zekowski, who has been named Burroughs Best Offensive Player twice, Most Valuable Player once and All Tournament Poly Invitational MVP, owes much to the Bears’ coaching staff.
“The most helpful is tricky, because there’s a lot that goes into anyone’s game. As a set specialist, it’s particularly difficult to get direct support when the majority of coaches play perimeter. They still have useful input, just not always the technical advice a fellow set player might,” Zekowski said. “Above a lot of coaches, I’ve had throughout my career though, I’d say either Coach [David] Cohen or Martin [Ortega Jennison]. Cohen was the head coach of aquatics for Burroughs before Jake Cook took his position and was responsible for the hiring of Martin. Those two have both impacted me so beneficially. It’s fair to say I owe them my life. The amount of support and development they’ve provided for me will be something I may never see again, and for that I am eternally grateful.”
Cook knows and respects Zekowski’s game, which saw him score between 80 to 85 goals as a junior and 90 to 95 tallies as a senior and between 280 and 300 goals overall.
“Harry was always a presence on the deck and in the water. He was an incredibly hard worker and was a leader to the rest of the guys on the team,” he said. “While he had some chaotic moments in his career, he came out of them a stronger and better person. I am honored to have coached him in his time at Burroughs and will miss his personality on the deck.”
Most high school students don’t play sports and because this is the case, Zekowski, who is a two-time USAWP Outstanding Academic All-American and one-time Academic All American, doesn’t take his time playing the sport lightly.
“Being on the Burroughs team has been a magnificent experience, ultimately I think it’s an incredibly positive environment, or at least it was this year, as Nancy Baylor and I as captains of the teams went out of our ways to create a positive and uplifting community that supports players,” he noted. “On top of that, the coaches are excellent, Both Martin and Jake are people who I will give a tremendous amount of my development both in the sport and in life too, as they’ve been wonderful mentors throughout my high school years.”
While Zekowski was the offensive leader on the boys’ team, Baylor, who will play women’s water polo at the University of Indiana, was his counterpart on the girls’ team.
“He’s a very aggressive and dominant offensive player,” she said. “He won’t go unnoticed in the field. He’s also a good team mentor, always motivating his teammates.”
When Zekowski is done with playing water polo, each and every memory he made will stay with him.
“About anything at Burroughs, I will remember water polo the most, but from within water polo specifically, it’s difficult to say,” he pointed out. “Most likely the summer practices, as those were quite honestly some of my favorite times on the team. Waking up at 6:30 and going to a pool to get your butt kicked for three straight hours, it just made the rest of the day feel great and the rest of summer magical. The memories and bonds those summer practices made were quite honestly one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”
What’s Zekowski’s preparation before he gets into the water?
“I never really had a defined way of preparing for a match. Some games would be different than others,” he said. “Usually though, I’d listen to music before the game. This year it was mainly country western, last year it was rap. Before really competitive games though I listen to something repetitive, to help slip me into a flow-state. Aside from competitive games, before all of them I usually just shoot the breeze with the opposing team. It works wonders because it gets in their heads and gets me loose.”
Zekowski recalled some of the more important matches.
“The biggest games I’ve played in have all really been club games, aside from my freshman year winning junior varsity league, but honestly it wasn’t as intense,” he said. “There was a game we played for Junior Olympic qualifiers my sophomore year with my 16 and under team against South Coast. I think that was the make or break for us going to the Junior Olympics or not. The level of pressure in that moment wasn’t something I’d experienced since our league final my freshman year. The game is still the same and the water is still wet, the only thing that really is different in games that are intense is the need to win. It becomes an entirely mental game at that point; how bad do you want it and how bad are you willing to get there. It’s just the presence of grit.”
When you win that’s fairly easy because the accolades are abundant, but losing is something that takes time to measure and appreciate.
“After tough losses the easiest way to rebound is to simply acknowledge that it happened, and that it’s over,” Zekowski said. “It’s easy to become hyper-critical and say you could have done a variety of things differently, but analysis is only beneficial in consideration of improvement, so if you don’t intend to improve by looking back in time, there’s no use in it. I just keep my head up and keep staying a sportsman, win or lose, I do either with grace.”
In that same thread, winning keeps one afloat and ready to meet the next challenge in or out of the pool.
“Absolutely water polo has given me confidence within the classroom and with people,” Zekowski said. “It definitely helped deal with a fear of failure, as it helped me learn that failure is beneficial. In fact, water polo has taught me that failing means you’re achieving, because as long as you keep moving forward, it becomes a learning experience.”
Zekowski is tall at 6-foot 1 and close to 200 pounds. Football would have seemed an option and perhaps basketball, which can be rough and tumble.
“I like to tell everyone I chose water polo specifically because of how other sports don’t openly encourage the level of violence water polo does, but in reality, I chose water polo for a lot prettier reasons,” he said. “I picked the sport up right around the same time my brother did, which was before his freshman year in high school. I did this because I saw him express interest in it and thought to myself, “I have to do it better than him.” It was ultimately only in the name of one sibling trying to outshine the other that I ended up falling in love with a totally new sport.”
It’s a good thing that he did.