Goalkeeper Liam Markus has spent the past few years keeping opponents from scoring on South Pasadena High School’s high-flying boys’ water polo team, so it might seem appropriate that he’ll attend a higher education institution that is all about defense. Of the nation, that is.
In July, Markus announced that he has made a verbal commitment to continue his water polo career and education at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Markus also considered offers from Harvard, Brown and UCLA, among others, before deciding to “Aim High” — as the Air Force motto says — in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“I could not envision myself anywhere else,” Markus said this week in a telephone interview. “I made sure that I took my time before making a decision and it is a perfect fit.”
Both athletically and academically, it would appear. The Falcons will graduate two of their four goalkeepers by the time Markus heads to campus in fall 2021, and in the classroom he plans to major in biochemistry and hopes to eventually be a neurosurgeon.
“My parents even ordered a copy of ‘The Handbook of Neurosurgery’ for me,” he said. “It’s the book that even neurosurgeons consult during their most challenging cases. I’m excited for that.”
Aside from keeping his bookshelves well stocked, Markus’ parents, Lisa and Denis Markus, are also somewhat responsible for the affinity for water polo that Liam shares with his sister Grace, a sophomore at SPHS and standout for the Tiger girls’ water polo squad.
“My mother sort of steered us in that direction,” Liam said. “She figured that since my dad is Croatian and she is part Hungarian, it would be a good sport for us.”
Those two nations regularly compete at the highest levels of the sport, and their matchup for the world championship in 2017 — won 8-6 by Croatia, incidentally — has often been referred to as water polo’s game of the century.
Liam Markus’ introduction to the sport seven years ago was far less dramatic.
“I didn’t care for it all that much at first, but after a week or two I got into it,” said Markus, who at different phases of his life has also dabbled in soccer and basketball.
His transition to goalkeeper was also transformational.
“I was a field player and we were playing in a tournament,” he said. “I got kicked out of a game before halftime. My coach told me that I could either sit out or go in at goalie, and I chose the latter.”
And he hasn’t left what the sport’s aficionados refer to as “the cage.”
“I never would have played goalie of my own accord,” Markus said. “Not long after, I figured I was a natural at it and I could never be a field player anymore.”
Markus appreciates the position because it requires communication and mental toughness, two attributes that presumably will serve him well at the academy.
“If you make a mistake, there is a lot of time to dwell on it,” he said, “so it takes a lot of mental toughness. I also enjoy talking with my teammates during the game.”
Markus began playing for the South Pasadena Water Polo Club before he changed lanes and went to the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center. He credits that transition to coach Mike Gonzales, one of the coaches at the center.
“He was the first person who showed me how difficult the sport was and how hard you had to work in order to be successful,” said Markus, who added that his skills “increased rapidly” under Gonzales’ tutelage.
“I went from a C teamer to a B teamer to an A teamer very quickly,” said Markus, referring to the designations used in club water polo.
Gonzales is also Markus’ head coach at SPHS and has led the Tigers to back-to-back Rio Hondo League titles in 2018 and 2019. The squad will have to wait a couple of extra months to try for a three-peat. Water polo maintained its placement as a fall sport under the CIF’s pandemic-altered schedule, but games cannot be played until Dec. 21 at the earliest.
“We have a lot of experience and we have been playing together for a long time,” Markus said of the Tigers. “We all know each other very well and have a strong sense of teamwork.”
The squad’s success has translated into personal plaudits for Markus, a rare four-year varsity starter, who has twice been named the Rio Hondo most valuable goalkeeper, was tabbed as the SPHS team’s MVP and has received numerous honors in the club and Junior Olympic sphere. He was also named a 2019 USA Water Polo academic all-American, received the award of excellence at the 2019 Congress of Future Medical Leaders and has earned his black belt in taekwondo, to boot.
Provided all goes well, Markus will follow what he called “the academy path” that will allow him to graduate as an officer before attending medical school and completing his seven-year residency.
In the meantime, he will continue club play at the Rose Bowl and is looking forward to one more season with the Tigers, which means at least two more chances to face off with Temple City, his friendly nemesis.
“For the past three years they have been our biggest challenge,” said Markus of the Rams. “They have had a lot of good players, so our games are the most competitive and entertaining.”
Two concepts that have sadly gone wanting during the many months of quarantine.