By Matthew Liebowitz
The first time Abbie Coscia’s mom saw her daughter play water polo, she was horrified.
“She screamed, ‘That girl’s drowning my daughter,’” recalled Abbie.
Her grandfather, who Abbie cited as one of her “biggest supporters,” saw things differently, even from the first time she jumped in the pool as a seventh grader.
Well, maybe not right away. Water polo is, notoriously, a brutally hands-on sport.
“When I was a little seventh grader, he might have been worried,” Abbie said. It didn’t take long for her grandfather, who also played, and now regularly sends her tips and texts after games, to realize Abbie’s prowess in the pool would outdo any fears he had for her safety.
Now that he’s seen her play for three years, “he’s more assured I can hold my own out there.”
And he was right: Abbie, a sophomore from Holyoke, Mass., is now the team’s co-captain. She also holds the record for the most goals scored in a single season – 68, in 2016 – and is on track to break the record for all times goals, 136, currently held by Maddy Stern ’14, now a student at Harvard University.
Abbie’s road from newbie to hard-charging co-captain began the first day she went out for a sport during her seventh-grade spring.
“I walked in, there were 12 people, and eight of us didn’t know how to play at all,” recalled Abbie. “Coach [Bill] Berghoff said, ‘It’s fine, none of you know the sport, or the rules, or have ever watched a game in your life, [but] it’s going to be fine.’”
Abbie made it clear she was entirely inexperienced at the time. “I had seen a water polo ball once, but literally had no clue what anything was.”
Thankfully, Coach Berghoff came to the team with decades of experience; he played high school water polo in Worthington, Ohio, played on Bowdoin’s club team in college, began refereeing NCAA games in 1986, and went on to coach the sport at Wilbraham and Monson Academy, Suffield Academy, and Choate Rosemary Hall before coming to Williston.
Berghoff quickly taught Abbie and her teammates the basics, and from there, she was able to use the hand-eye coordination she’d developed on the basketball court, along with her swimming skills, to not just participate in the new sport, but to excel. She was named Most Valuable Player her freshman year, just two years into the sport.
Abbie’s water polo career may have gotten off to its official start that first seventh grade spring, but in reality it is somewhat of a lifetime in the making, to the obvious chagrin of her parents.
“I was always getting into wrestling fights with my brother,” Abbie said about growing up with her younger brother Jack, who will most likely attend Williston as a 7th grader in the fall. “My mom would get furious with us. She’d yell as us three times a day to stop.”
The roughhousing paid off; when opponents can, as Abbie described it, “basically push you under water and drown you if you have the ball,” her tenacity and persistence have made her the star player she is.
“It’s a rough sport,” said Abbie. “To win water polo, you just have to be aggressive.” It’s that raw power and tenacity, she stressed, that counts, especially when, on offense, it’s likely she’ll have two or three opponents hanging on her, trying to bring her down and get the ball.
“You can be talented,” she said, “but if you just sit there, you’re never going to get the ball. I love getting girls to be passionate about the game, seeing girls become really aggressive and work so hard.”
As Berghoff put it: “If she goes to a college that doesn’t have water polo, I imagine she’ll play rugby.”
Regarding her work ethic, and her desire to always improve, Abbie cited the Advantage Rule. According to the NCAA Rules for the Collegiate Water Polo Association, the Advantage Rule states, “The referees shall have discretion to award (or not award) any ordinary, exclusion or penalty foul, depending on whether the decision would advantage the attacking team. They shall officiate in favor of the attacking team by awarding a foul or refraining from awarding a foul if, in their opinion, awarding the foul would be an advantage to the offending player’s team. The referees shall apply this principle to the fullest extent.”
Or as Abbie put it, “If you’re a better player, you’re going to have to fight harder for them to call a foul.” She said she thrives on this rule.
“[It] makes me push myself harder,” she said. “It’s going to get me better in the long run; it makes me work for it. If I’m playing against someone that’s weaker and they foul me, it’s not making me work to my full potential.”
Coach Berghoff said along with Abbie’s ferocity, she has the right mentality for the game. “As the offensive focal point, she’s got the perfect psyche for what she’s got to do,” Berghoff said. “If you’re a player that gets upset by those kinds of things you’re totally knocked out of the game mentally. She just keeps on rolling.”
Another, perhaps less obvious aspect of the sport Abbie loves, is the feeling she has once the final whistle blows and she’s out of the pool.
“After a game I’m happy as can be, I’m completely calm,” she said. “I always wanted to do football and wrestling, this is my way of getting my energy and anger out.”
She added, “I’m in a much better mood when I wake up I know that I have water polo.” She can track that mood change back several months.
“In the winter, when it’s bad weather, I’m kind of mellow, but I’m very consistently positive in the spring,” Abbie said. “When it’s the middle of January, I know I only have two months left [before the season].”
Despite her personal records, Abbie is at heart a team player. Because the sport is so physical, and also because her fellow players had to fight so hard to even field a team the past few years – Berghoff, along with Olivia Cuevas and Maddy Stern before that — gave presentations to the middle school in the hopes of recruiting students to join the team — they’ve developed an incredibly strong bond.
“They’re coming together nicely, and early,” said Berghoff. The team lost its first game 8-6 against Choate on Wednesday April 5. Berghoff called against the top-ranked team “a great moral victory.”
The close score, Berghoff said, had a lot to do with the budding chemistry of the new squad.
“It’s not just Abbie, this is a team that can become really good if everybody blends together,” Berghoff said. “We’ve got Abbie who people know you have to pay attention to, and a couple sneaky girls who they don’t know they have to pay attention to.”
Berghoff compared Abbie’s current leadership skills to Maddy Stern’s. “She’s a great teammate. She a lot like Maddy. She’s the mother hen of these girls.”
Although she’s well on the way to breaking Maddy’s record and becoming the all-time goal scorer for the school, Abbie is quick to give praise where it’s due.
“I love coach Berghoff to death, he’s one of my favorite people at Williston,” she said. “I give him credit for it all.”