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High Schools | Eric Sondheimer

He Doesn't Tread Lightly for a Water Polo Player

September 23, 2001|Eric Sondheimer

Michael March could have been a hard-charging linebacker in football or a shot-blocking center in basketball.

He probably could have been an intimidating left-handed pitcher in baseball, or an impenetrable soccer goalie.

Instead, he chose water polo--and became the player who is considered the No. 1 college prospect in the nation.

"I've been around water my entire life," said the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Newport Beach Corona del Mar High senior said. "When we go on vacation, it always involves water, whether it's swimming, skiing, surfing, snorkeling or wakeboarding."

His parents, Laurie and Dave, never steered him toward a specific sport even though his size screamed for him to play football or basketball.

"He was such a big kid," Laurie said. "Instead of pounding the pavement, we figured he was better in water."

He played basketball exclusively in seventh and eighth grade, then switched to water polo as a high school freshman.

He was stuck on the bench initially, something he had never experienced.

He reacted by going home after practice, skipping dinner and spending hours perfecting his shot in the family pool, which overlooks the seventh green at Pelican Hill Golf Club..

"I'd get pretty mad," March said.

Golfers who looked up in the early evening hours must have wondered who was the crazy kid repeatedly tossing a yellow ball against a cement wall in the pool while wearing a backpack that contained weights.

March eventually broke into the starting lineup and hasn't missed a start since. He scored 62 goals last season and led the Sea Kings with 41 steals in helping Corona del Mar win the Southern Section Division II championship. On Saturday, he helped the Sea Kings win the South Coast tournament.

Being left-handed makes him as valuable in water polo as a left-handed pitcher in baseball.

The majority of players are right-handed, giving March and his teammates an added dimension to their offense.

His coach, John Vargas, who guided the U.S. Olympic team in Sydney, Australia, last year and was selected Stanford's new coach this week, said March is one of the best young players in the nation.

"He's come a long ways in a short period of time," Vargas said.

"He's aggressive, real strong but totally composed and under control, so you have this sense maybe he's not. It would be the most unbelievable thing to think he has a chance to make the U.S. Olympic team in 2004."

Summer time was no vacation for March. "It was pretty much water polo every day," he said.

He traveled to Australia for a week to train with the junior national team. He spent a week in Greece and two weeks in Turkey for competitions. He trained for a week in Croatia with the U.S. national team.

March returned on Aug. 29 with a different look. His right eyebrow had been sliced in half.

"It was my initiation to the national team," he said. "They told me if I struggle, I'll get the whole thing off and if I don't struggle, I'll only lose half and I have senior pictures for high school coming up."

Among the highlights of his European adventure was cliff diving in Croatia.

Besides water polo, March's passion is spearfishing. He'll drive to the beach near his home in Newport Coast, put on fins and goggles, take out his spear and catch dinner, usually calico bass or sand bass. Then he'll go home, clean the fish himself and cook it on the barbecue.

If producers from the "Survivor" television show are looking for a teenage contestant, March would be perfect.

"Whenever I watch it, I say, 'Yeah, I could be doing that,"' he said. "They'd probably want me to stay around to bring in all the fish."

All the top college water polo programs are recruiting March, who has left his options open.

The fact a school is going to pay for March's college education is a tribute to his foresight and his parents' trust in allowing him to choose a sport that best fit his skills.

"I think there are parents who really push their kids to do certain sports," he said. "My parents let me do what I wanted."

Of course, his parents wanted to make sure he was committed to the sport, so they established a test. Dave and Laurie agreed to drive him to his early-morning practice sessions but only if he voluntarily dragged himself out of bed.

"We told him if he wants to do this, he has to wake up and he did," Dave said. "We knew then he had the discipline."

Water polo isn't as violent as football, but there are more battles underwater than many people think.

As March described it: "Your suit is always getting grabbed. Your legs are getting grabbed. There's always elbows. You get punched. If you're swimming with your face down, you get hit in the eyes."

And what does it mean for March? "It's all fun," he said.

*

Eric Sondheimer can be reached at eric.sondheimer@latimes.com.

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