By Robert Campbell
Like most of her teammates at Laguna Beach High, Cara Borkovec grew up playing water polo. Now she’s a senior co-captain of arguably the best high school water polo team in the country. But Borkovec is not your typical southern California girl. In fact, she’s from Oak Park, Ill., just east of Chicago, where water polo is played indoors, in the spring, and in relative obscurity. “Honestly, if you mention water polo, some people might not even know what it is,” she said.
Borkovec helped lead Fenwick High School to back-to-back Illinois state titles her first two years there, and was named first team all-state after her sophomore season. After earning second team all-American honors as a junior, she decided she needed to kick her game up a notch and headed west. “I was kind of at my limit there,” she said.
To put it in perspective, Laguna has beaten Newport Harbor three times this season, including a record 13-1 beating at their pool on Jan. 24. Borkovec said, “I don’t think an [Illinois] all star team could possibly play against a Newport here.”
She is currently third on the team in goals (49), just ahead of freshman phenom Bella Baldridge (43) and behind last year’s all-CIF, all Orange County and league MVP Makenzie Fischer (102), and her younger sister Aria (62), a Junior Olympic all-American and another first year standout.
Borkovec arrived in Laguna last summer to attend a four-day camp, hosted by USC Coach Jovan Vavic. It was an eye-opening experience, to say the least. “I learned more in the four days at his camp at the beginning of the summer than I, like, ever learned in my entire life before that,” she said.
“She has improved so much in such a short time,” said her high school coach Ethan Damato. “Her ability to pick up skills and put them into a game situation is unique.”
After that crash course in west coast water polo, Borkovec began training with SET Water Polo Club under the direction of Coach Brad Schumacher, who immediately introduced her to the rigors of a big time water polo program when he told her she would soon be wearing a weight belt like all the other girls in the pool. “It was so intense and hard and not at all what I was used to,” she said.
To play for a top-notch college program, Borkovec knew she would have to gain experience, not only against tougher competition but also with a new style of play. “I have to learn how to be able to deal with the girls holding on to my suit and pushing me around,” said Borkovec.
She learned quickly enough to draw the attention of NCAA defending champions USC, which offered her a scholarship. Back in Illinois, Borkovec made a list of schools she knew she could play for and a list of her dream schools. “They were up in the top dream schools,” she said.
The style of play in Illinois is more speed oriented. There isn’t as much structure in terms of running set plays on offense or using various defensive alignments. “That was kind of the hardest part to get used to,” said Borkovec, who gives Damato a lot of credit for her progress.
“I think her speed, athleticism and explosiveness has fit right into our style of play,” said Damato.
Borkovec is fascinated by the “campus” configuration of west coast schools. “The only way I’ve seen a high school like [Laguna] is through movies or TV shows,” she said. “I’m used to half a city block of five floors up. All hallways. Closed doors all the time. There’s no outside.”
Her friends tease her about her mid-western twang, and when she uses words like “pop” instead of soda. In turn, she finds it odd whenever someone weaves “rad”, “gnarly” or “stoked” into a sentence. “I’m still getting used to it. But it’s fun. I like it,” she said.
She plans to stay in Laguna over the summer with her mother and compete in Junior Olympics, as well as with SET. “I’m officially a California girl, I guess,” she said laughing.
Borkovec has kept in touch with her friends in Illinois, who have been following Laguna’s historic run, becoming only the third school to win the Newport Holiday Cup, the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions and the Southern California Championship in the same season. “I think it’s the coolest thing that we’ve gone three for three,” said Borkovec. “It’s almost surreal.”
But the only title that matters for Borkovec and her teammates is a CIF title. If they can pull it off, it will be the first for the Laguna girls in division one.