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Water polo pipeline from San Diego to Naval Academy is flowing

Water polo pipeline from San Diego to Naval Academy is flowing

They each played four varsity seasons of boys water polo, each earned All-CIF San Diego Section honors, and made the same college choice reflective of San Diego’s heritage as a Navy town.

Valhalla High alum Erik Nordquist and Steele Canyon grad Henry Williams are in their sophomore seasons on the Naval Academy men’s water polo team. They’re joined this season by freshman goalie Jack Hightower of Cathedral Catholic.

“I looked at my options, and the Naval Academy stood out,” Nordquist said. “It fit what I wanted. I always wanted to serve my country, and it has been a really good opportunity for me.”

California is a hotbed for men’s water polo, so the majority of the Navy roster consists of Golden State players. The current contingent of local representatives follows a stream that has included San Marcos’ Trevor Clark, Navy Class of ’20.

Also from Cathedral Catholic, Aiden Day has enrolled at the Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., a Naval Academy Foundation School that includes water polo in advance of coming to Navy next season. Current high senior Maddox Garrahy has committed to the academy.

“No doubt it has been a pipeline for us, and it should be with San Diego’s history in the Navy,” said Midshipmen coach Luis Nicolao, a Navy alum, who served at Coronado from 1994-96. “It has to go hand-in-hand. It’s one of those pipelines that we hope to continue.”

The Midshipmen started the season last weekend with two wins in four tournament games. Hightower made his collegiate debut in the fourth quarter of 12-7 win over Biola in the opener.

A year ago, Navy reached the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference final for the first time since 2011 before losing to Fordham.

Nordquist closed his prep career as the only returning starter on a Valhalla team that exceeded expectations by reaching the 2019 Division I semifinals in the final season of Kent Houston’s 35-year coaching career.

“I really focused on looking out for those younger teammates, just helping with the little things,” Nordquist said. “I really enjoyed pushing them and getting them to lean on each other, not just focusing on feeding one guy, but really working together.”

To qualify academically for the Naval Academy, Nordquist followed high school by studying at the Hill School. This came at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, so Nordquist appreciated having in-class instruction during a time of virtual learning elsewhere.

In his freshman year at Navy, the 6-foot-2 attacker appeared in 20 of 29 games with five goals and two assists, all while adapting during plebe year at the academy.

“Plebe year is definitely the hardest,” said Nordquist, who had a grandfather serve in the Army. “You’re thrown into a place where they put as much as possible on you. It can get you close to the breaking point so you’re forced to lean on the people around you and the people in your company.”

It helped to be reunited with Williams, an East County prep rival, but longtime club teammate and good friend.

In high school, Williams helped Steele Canyon climb the division ranks. The Cougars won the Division III title his freshman year, took the Division II title the next and then competed in the Open Division his final two seasons.

“I vastly grew up as a player and person there,” Williams said. “I came into the program as one of the stronger players. I was able to take a leadership role really early on, and that helped me choose my path to go the Naval Academy as well. It’s a school made for developing leaders.”

Williams long had an interest in attending a military academy in part due to the influence of his aunt, Amanda Williams, a former basketball player at the Air Force Academy and currently an executive with the NBA’s Utah Jazz.

Instead of the Air Force, though, the younger Williams determined Navy presented a better option.

The 5-10 attacker, small by college standards, played in 12 games his freshman year with five goals and two assists.

“I’m definitely one of the smaller guys on the team and in college water polo,” Williams said. “I try to play to my advantages, which are speed and overall game IQ to counterbalance that size difference.”

A year ahead of Williams, former Steele Canyon teammate Trevor Moore also attended Navy, but he transferred to UC San Diego after one season.

Last season’s Navy roster included junior Merle Richmond of Bishop’s and freshman Sullivan Lundy of Carlsbad. Richmond has opted to focus on studies ahead of graduation. Lundy has left the water polo team while staying at the academy.

Before coming to Annapolis, Hightower enjoyed Open Division championships at Cathedral as a freshman reserve and then a third-year senior starter.

“We knew our senior year was going to be a special year, just with the amount of talent that we had,” the 6-3 goalie said. “So we worked hard. The thing that stuck with me was just the feeling of victory after we won. It was unforgettable.”

A year ahead of high school, Hightower became a goalie at the suggestion of a coach who saw him in an informal workout stopping shots from one of his sisters. All of his four older siblings preceded him in water polo, including sister Lindsey (UCSD) and brother Seth (Cal Lutheran).

His father, Barry, served in the Marine Corps, and his mother, Kim, in the Navy. In turn, Hightower set his sights on the Naval Academy from his freshman year in high school.

“I did a lot of research,” Hightower said. “The more research I did, the more I realized this is the place for me.”

Hightower began the seven-week plebe session on June 30 ahead of the traditional school year.

“It’s meant to be hard. Basically, it’s a boot camp,” Hightower said. “At the same time, it instills a ton of good values in you. It’s cool because confidence, for example, translates to the pool, too.”

It’s the Navy way for those players from a Navy town.

Thien is a freelance writer.