It wasn't that long ago that Paige Hacker sat high in the stands at Mona Plummer Aquatic Complex watching the water polo match.
She didn't really have a coach or organized team back then, but she wanted nothing more than to don one of those Arizona State emblazoned robes that the team wore during team introductions.
In one of the more improbable paths to a college scholarship, Hacker made it. She is a freshman in the Sun Devils' program this year after essentially willing her way to a collegiate level program.
"I was a swimmer and one of our cross-training practices for Sun Devil Aquatics included a water polo coach coming in and giving a clinic," Hacker said. "I fell in love with it and after that I kept asking myself, ‘Why should I swim when I can be playing water polo.'
"I started going to the ASU matches and I saw the players on the side of the pool wearing the robe and I knew it was something I had to be part of. I just needed to find a way to play."
Then she quickly found out organized teams were rare in Arizona. There were a smattering of club teams at the high school level, but nothing whatsoever in the Ahwatukee Foothills area. Instead of possibly letting her newfound passion die out, Hacker put that energy into developing her own team.
She became a recruiter before getting recruited by Arizona State University coach Todd Clapper.
"Paige showed a lot of spunk by doing whatever it took to play," Clapper said. "A lot of kids meet a dead end and turnaround. She found a way to get past it."
Hacker, who is believed to be one of Arizona's first, if not the only, water polo players to earn a scholarship, got her dad, Rudy, to be the coach despite knowing little about the sport, grabbed athletes from other sports who were down in the depth chart or looking for a new outlet. She even brought over some students from Mountain Pointe to form a team.
"We didn't know what we were doing, but that made it even more of a challenge for me," Hacker said. "We eventually got things going and I loved it."
She got enough skill and courage to attend out-of-state camps that led to tryouts for youth national teams. Hacker became of member of the 2006 Cadet National Training Team, was a Mountain Zone team captain in 2007 and played for the Junior National Training Team in 2008 and 2009.
Clearly, Hacker had a good feel for the game despite the modest beginnings. It caught Clapper's eye and he didn't hesitate making the scholarship offer.
"We knew she wasn't going to come in and start right away," said Hacker, who is in his sixth year running the program. "Her teammates have years of experience on her and know the game better simply because they were introduced to it at a young age, but she is doing well."
Hacker is a 5-foot-11 defender/attacker trying to soak in as much as she can this first season. She has teammates from around the world - New Zealand, Germany, Australia, Hungary, South Africa - and California where the sport is recognized by the California Interscholastic Federation and there are youth leagues throughout the state.
"I know where I am compared to everyone else is far behind, but I managed to get this far," said Hacker, who has appeared in some matches. "All I can do is watch, learn and get better."
Clapper, whose program plays in the difficult Mountain Pacific Sports Federation league, said Hacker has been doing just that.
"She has had a great attitude and done everything we have asked of her," he said. "She is raw, but undeterred. We knew in recruiting her it would be a process, but she is not out of place or overwhelmed by any means. Paige is doing a good job of acclimating herself."
Regardless of what might happen the rest of the season and beyond, Hacker already fulfilled the goal that started it all.
"The first time I put on the robe and they called my name I couldn't believe it," she said. "When I think back to the first year when I forced my dad to coach and all I talked about was water polo it is hard to believe I am here."