Zach Senator Is Ready for the Next Challenge after Excelling in Two Sports at Pomona Pitzer College
By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor
In four years at Palisades High, Zach Senator hardly knew what it felt like to lose. He won four City Section championships in water polo and four more in swimming, yet he was unsure if he could compete in both sports at the next level.
Turns out, he picked the perfect school at which to “double up” and it has been an amazing advenure for him at Pomona College in Claremont.
In swimming, Senator was part of two Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship squads and qualified for the NCAA Division III National Championships. In water polo, he played on three SCIAC championship teams, qualified for the NCAA Division I tournament three times and was a four-time Academic All-American. He played in all 28 games his senior year, scoring 13 goals and dishing out nine assists as the Sagehens made it to the SCIAC semifinals.
Senator not only “doubled” in the pool, but in the classroom also. He wrapped up classes and is ready for finals, having already written theses for both of his majors, Math and Economics.
“The funny thing is I got recruited for swimming but I ended up playing water polo all four years and swimming for three,” he says. “I took my last year off from swimming as I wanted to enjoy my last semester of college.”
Senator wanted to play water polo in large part because of Coach Alex Rodriguez, who is also an assistant for the USA Men’s Senior National Team.
“At the beginning I didn’t expect to play at all because there were so many good players but I ended up starting because of skills I developed in high school,” says Senator, who was voted the Dolphins’ Team MVP in water polo his senior year. “I was good at passing and I fed our other guys the ball a lot. We won our first SCIAC championship in 12 or 13 years, we added a bunch of freshmen and I was very lucky to be a part of the program under Coach Rodriguez. His knowledge of the game is amazing, he’s good at running practices and drills we did related to games, philosophy and strategy. That was all really fun. We were able to compete not only against other Division III programs but also Division I teams.”
Talk about trial by fire, the very first game that Senator started was in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament against UCLA. The Sagehens got crushed, but early the next morning they played 10th-ranked UC Irvine and upset the overconfident Anteaters in double overtime.
“We were shocked to beat them,” Senator says. “No one expected us to win, we were big underdogs. I played the entire game and had some clutch assists. The game-winning goal was scored by another freshman who ended up being one of my friends. If you win your conference in water polo you qualify for the NCAA tournament, so that year we got to travel up to Berkeley to play Cal.”
From then on, Senator was all in for water polo.
“When I got there I didn’t even know I’d play, but I asked Coach and he said sure,” Senator recalls. “After my freshman year my role changed. I had to learn to become more of a scorer and get better at defense. This year I finally was able to do it but my sophomore and junior years it was hard.”
In swimming, Senator competed in the distance events: the 500 freestyle, 200 freestyle, the mile and the 800 freestyle relay. His best year, when he improved his times the most, was his freshman year.
“Water polo-wise there’s nothing that could’ve prepared me for how hard it was,” Senator admits. “We practiced Monday-Tuesday-Thursday and we had double days—two hours in the morning, then an hour and a half of conditioning and drills and another hour lifting weights. For swimming, I have to say Westside Aquatics prepared me very well.”
As for what’s next, Senator doesn’t really know except that he will embark on an exciting new career.
“I start a job in January doing management consulting at Deloitte in LA but I’ll be traveling a lot,” he reveals. “I’m really interested to see where it takes me and what peaks my interest most. I’d love to coach at some point, whether it’s my kids, helping out with Pali a little bit… I’m not sure. Now, I’m focusing on my career.”
Coming from a large public high school like Palisades, Senator was unsure if he would adapt at a small college like Pomona, but not only did he fit in, he thrived.
“One thing that appealed to me about Pomona was the chance to continue to play the two sports I love,” he admits. “Before Pali I went to private school from K-8 at Wildwood so I experienced that environment previously. Pomona is also one of the better academic schools in the country and I liked being so close to home where I can still be friends with my little brother Judah, who’s 10 now.”
Spending much of his last semester at home in the Palisades after having to leave campus was an adjustment, but Senator is used to adapting and coping.
“I do keep in touch with a few of my teammates and friends at Pali,” he says. “We check in with each other occasionally.”
Senator arrived at Pomona undeclared but quickly gravitated towards the fields that he ended up majoring in.
One endeavor still near and dear to Senator’s heart is “Dribble for the Cure,” which he made his Bar Mitzvah project in 2010, two years after his 8-year-old brother Jackson died of brain cancer. He formed “Team Jackson,” a group comprised of friends and family in the Palisades community, to raise money for the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation.
In 2011, Team Jackson won the top fundraising prize after netting over $13,000. In 2013, Team Jackson raised over $38,500, with Senator raising $24,000 himself.
“I wanted to do something that helped cure pediatric cancer and I found this event that’s held each year and I thought it would be great since I love basketball and it was Jackson’s favorite sport,” Senator said back then.
“I’m personally not leading it any more but I’ve passed it along to my sister Sarah,” he says. “I’m not involved as much now.”
Senator capped off his senior year at Pali High by winning the James A. Mercer Scholar-Athlete Award by virtue of his grades and two-sport excellence. That spring he won the 500 freestyle at City finals and swam on the Dolphins’ record-setting 200- and 400-yard freestyle relays. As a junior he scored five goals in the City water polo final to lead the Dolphins past Birmingham, 11-9. The next fall he showed his versatility and unselfishness by handing out nine assists in a 19-3 rout of the Patriots in a finals rematch.
Senator could have went to a Division I university, but believes picking a Division III school is the best decision he’s ever made.
“It really depends what your goals are but for some Division I may be too much,” he says. “Our practice schedule was so rigorous so having an offseason was valuable. If you want to play professionally, go Division I. In my case I knew that I wasn’t good enough to play professionally. There were certainly times I was jealous of someone in Division I, but I think the relationships I’ve made with friends at Pomona was awesome and I had one of the best coaches in the game!”
Senator has discussed coaching with Rodriguez some day and is leaving that option open.
“Coach Rodriguez has some good water polo connections, so I thought about it,” Senator says. “For now I want to take this job opportunity but maybe I’ll play Masters. Once I got home [from school] I had my theses due in a month so I’d wake up and do work all day. We have some weights in our backyard and I sometimes do workout classes.”
Senator is happy to be back in the Palisades and has no regrets about choosing to be a two-sport athlete and a two-major graduate.
“A lot of the skills I learned at Pali I applied to college, like time management,” Senator says. “It was challenging doing a double major, there were a couple of semesters where I had zero time. However, I ended up doing very well and I encourage others to do it as long as they understand the commitment it takes. They’re supposed to mail us our diplomas and hopefully they’ll have a commencement ceremony in the fall.”
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