Erik Koenig took an interesting path to the Merced College men’s water polo team.
The 2009 Golden Valley High School graduate spent two years in culinary school before joining the Army after the death of a friend in Iraq. Koenig was in the Army for three years, seeing combat in Afghanistan.
He returned to Merced when a broken foot and injured ankle brought his time in the military to an end.
“I knew when I was going to go back to school that I wanted to stay active,” Koenig said. “I’ve always loved water polo and thought it would be a good chance to play the game again.
“My ankle hasn’t really fully healed, but being back in the water has been good for it.”
Koenig’s presence has been good for a young Blue Devil team. He’s been instrumental in MC’s 10-6 start and has the team focused on a trip to the NorCal Tournament.
With 10 freshmen on the squad, the 23-year-old 2-meter competitor has brought not only maturity but world experience to the pool.
“It’s been really great to have him on the team,” said MC coach Scott McCall, who coached Koenig in elementary school. “He instantly brings a maturity that we lacked. It’s like having an extra coach in the water.
“The leadership, attitude and work ethic he brings set the example for everyone else.”
Calling Koenig an extra coach isn’t a stretch. When he finishes up practice with the Blue Devils, he heads over to El Capitan High to coach the boys junior varsity water polo team and help Rodd Parker with the varsity. Koenig said his approach with the Gauchos and his younger teammates is often the same.
He preaches fundamentals, always going at top speed, and offers insight into some of his personal life lessons.
While Koenig’s knowledge and perspective on the game broadened with his world experiences, his return to the pool wasn’t seamless. Five years out of the water couldn’t be overcome in one night.
“Getting back into shape was pretty hard,” Koenig said. “I started getting back in the pool around late March, early April. I basically coughed up a lung in those first few months. Probably around late August I finally felt like I was ready to play the sport again.
“I’ve had to adjust to not being the player I once was. I used to have a big shot, but my arm definitely isn’t what it used to be. My accuracy isn’t what it used to be. I’m more of a role guy down in the hole set these days.”
The physical differences aren’t the only adjustments Koenig has had to make.
“The way the game is played is very different than when I was in high school,” Koenig said. “It used to favor the defensive player, but some rule changes definitely give the offensive player the advantage now.”
Koenig acknowledged the age difference between he and his mostly 18-year-old teammates is occasionally evident.
“They’ve got all that newer lingo that I don’t understand,” Koenig said. “They call me the old man sometimes. To some degree it’s true.
“The physical nature of the game definitely has taken its toll on me. The younger guys get done, go change and go about their business. I get done and ice, take some ibuprofen and a hot shower.”
An old shoulder injury kept him out of Wednesday’s victory over Modesto and may sideline him again for today’s home match against Cabrillo. If McCall is certain of anything, it’s that Koenig won’t be out of the pool long.
“He’s the kind of guy that’s going to come off the bench and give you everything he has,” McCall said. “Some of the physical ailments like his shoulder have frustrated him, but he’s so mentally tough from his time out in the world, he finds a way to push through it.”
This story was originally published October 9, 2014 6:43 PM.