At North Allegheny High School, students take their time spent in the water seriously.
Beyond the team's successful swimming teams -- both boys and girls -- students have donned swim caps to take on another aquatic sport at full speed ... water polo.
Last weekend, North Allegheny played host to its annual Tiger Classic. The girls team swept four games and the boys won four out of five, losing one game to Cumberland Valley.
While "home-pool advantage" certainly applies, it has taken on a new meaning for this high school team. Since the program began in 2001, they have had to travel significant distances just to find an opponent.
The nearest team has been in Erie, about 75 miles away. Recent tournaments have taken place in Mechanicsburg and Reading; game attendance means overnight trips on weekends for the team.
"It's challenging for the students," said Nikola Malezanov, the team's coach. "But they bring their books, and they study and socialize on the buses, so they aren't missing too much."
Despite the obstacle of having virtually no local competition, the team is strong. A few of the players are on national training teams for their age groups, said Malezanov, who began coaching the team last month. He is optimistic about their chances this season.
"North Allegheny [water polo] is growing and growing, thanks to the coach before me [Rob Semanchik]," he said. "We are now in the top three or four in the state, and I think we have a shot to go all the way and win states."
Malezanov's ambition is not limited to his own team. After the success of North Allegheny's team, one of his goals is to develop water polo programs at surrounding high schools in the Pittsburgh area. He says that while a handful of middle school and summer programs exist, he is still working with contacts at high schools to develop their programs.
"There are pools around, so the infrastructure is in place," Malezanov said. "Having a water polo team offers a good opportunity to the schools."
One water polo team, Pittsburgh Combined, started last year with athletes from several Pittsburgh Public Schools and Shaler Area. The team competed this past weekend in Ohio Cup Junior Varsity Water Polo Tournament hosted in Worthington, Ohio, where they placed third.
But that program is just starting, and because it is not an official high school program, the team cannot participate in an interscholastic league in Pennsylvania.
Part of the success of North Allegheny's water polo team is linked to its swimming and diving program, which is one of the best in the state. Just last year, the girls team won the WPIAL Class AAA team championship, while the boys team came in second. The water polo program keeps top swimmers in the water throughout the offseason.
The strength of the water polo team is also related to a year-round club team that feeds into the high school program, Tiger Water Polo Club. Malezanov, who also coaches Tiger Water Polo Club, says 95 percent of the players are at North Allegheny high school or middle school. They compete against other club teams, including the Navy's. Like the high school team, playing currently means traveling: they drive as far as Annapolis, Md., and Connecticut for tournaments.
The schedule for this season projects a similar high mileage series of weekends, and will continue until Pittsburgh becomes the water polo town Malezanov hopes it will.