Football is arguably Texas’s state sport, yet two Austin area high school students — Emilio Cohen-Hadria and Makayla Keating — are making names for themselves in water polo.

They are integral parts of their respective schools’ teams, as well as Zilla Water Polo, a youth-oriented squad headed by Emilio’s father, Pascal Cohen-Hadria. Their prowess in the water has yielded well-deserved recognition and an imaginably lifelong love of a game that is more associated with California.

Emilio Cohen-Hadria, young aquatic pioneer

The younger Cohen-Hadria, who will be a sophomore at Austin Westwood High, bore some responsibility for rebooting the school’s dormant water polo squad, of which he is the captain.

“Basically, it was a revived team,” his father told Texas Scorecard. “They did not play because of lack of interest, but this year, he was kind of responsible for putting the team back together.”

Emilio capped Westwood’s “rebuilding” year by making the all-region team (water polo is not a UIL sanctioned sport).

A member of Zilla from a very young age, Emilio has participated in the Junior Olympics five times and will compete in his sixth at the end of next month. He was selected to the Olympic Development Program with a chance to make the 16 and under team.

Emilio, who plays the utility/attacker position, is essentially the equivalent of a point guard in basketball. Cohen-Hadria described his son as “one of the strongest players one and one.”

“He doesn’t shoot as much from the outside though he is every good at it,” he explained. “His primary focus is to try to get around his defender.”

In addition to successfully drawing hordes of defenders and making precision passes, Emilio plays solid defense himself. According to his father, Emilio’s teammates like to play with him because of his unselfishness.

“He shares the ball quite a bit,” said Cohen-Hadria.

Cohen-Hadria’s history with the sport is extensive. 

Originally hailing from the West Coast, he played at the high school level in California before continuing on at the University of Colorado. He returned to California to coach a few high school teams, and as a coach on the collegiate level, has appeared in the CWPA National Championship twice.

Known as “Coach Squish,” Cohen-Hadria was awarded the top boys Developmental Coach in Texas in 2015. His daughter and Emilio’s younger sister also participates with Zilla.

Makayla Keating, shooting star

Sophomore-to-be Keating co-captains the Round Rock Cedar Ridge High Raiders water polo team. Still in the dawn of her high school career, she has established herself as the top female player in the Lone Star State, with MVP and All-Region honors to her name.

A utility/attacker like Emilio, Keating is a constant presence at the Junior Olympics. She is one of the few non-Californians to earn the opportunity to try out for the national team.

“It’s hard for players outside of California to break into that kind of national level because of the fact that we just don’t get the kind of visibility that Californians get so when one is selected, that’s a big accomplishment,” said Cohen-Hadria.

Keating regularly competes with boys and her physicality is a valuable weapon for Zilla. Cohen-Hadria said that she usually leads in scoring and steals, as well as draws other teams’ top defenders.

“She’s more of an outside player,” he explained. “She’s really good at shooting [and] she’s really good at ball-handling and passing. She can play the middle … although on our club team, we don’t play that position that much.”

Water polo is also part of Keating’s DNA since she has two older siblings actively involved in the sport.

Cohen-Hadria added that Keating “knows what’s she doing” when in the pool.

“Every time she gets the ball, you’re expecting something good to happen,” he said.

While Keating can score multiple goals, she is intent on making sure each and every one of her teammates gets their chance with the ball.

“She definitely includes her teammates,” said Cohen-Hadria.

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