SPRINGFIELD TOWNSHIP, Ohio — Eli Franke is the "heart and soul" of the St. Xavier water polo program – and he's only a freshman.
"He has been fire for this team all season long," St. X coach Paul Splitt said. "Every day he has been a motivator for everybody on the team. He gets us hyped; he gets us encouraged. Then we see him do his thing in the water and we're that much more fired up."
Franke, 15, was born with arthrogryposis, a condition that impacted his joints mostly in his legs and somewhat in his arms.
However, Franke's condition doesn't hinder his mobility – or his natural optimism around his teammates before practice or games.
"You get your day started with a high-five from Eli, it's a good day," Splitt said.
Even after he'd had more than 20 surgeries, Franke, a junior varsity player, says with a smile that he bounces back stronger every time. He's all about winning and supporting his teammates.
"I've always worked hard," Franke said. "I've always come here and done my best. I will push myself to the limit."
No one knows that better than his twin brother, Sam Franke. Eli and Sam started swimming lessons at the age of 4 and are now part of the St. X junior varsity.
Sam Franke, who is the top goal scorer for the freshmen this season, said nothing stops his brother.
"He's doing a lot of things that no one ever expected," Sam Franke said. "In the first place he wasn't really supposed to walk, and that was a miracle. And now he does things like sled hockey. He plays water polo. We never thought he was going to do that and it's really just incredible out here."
Prior to this season, Eli wasn't so sure he would participate in the water polo program. He told Splitt he couldn't tread water. While Eli was on the team's roster, Sam thought his brother would be a team manager.
That all changed with a conversation during a preseason scrimmage against Milford.
Splitt, who was Eli's physical education teacher at Montgomery Elementary School, knew about Eli's participation in Paralympic swimming. Splitt taught Eli from kindergarten to fourth grade and understood how much Eli wanted to participate in every activity.
So together they developed a plan for Eli within the St. X water polo program. Splitt taught Franke how to use an egg-beater motion with his arms to tread.
Franke was soon convinced and the next day joined the team in the pool after Splitt's encouragement.
"He had so much faith in me," Eli Franke said. "When I first got there he was telling me I was going to get a goal this season. He's just a great man and he's always believed in me and he always will."
Franke earned the first of his three goals this season on the junior varsity squad when he scored against Toledo St. Francis High School in a mid-September tournament at Napoleon High School.
The reaction from his teammates and Splitt was simply priceless.
"I felt like, 'Wow, this is really where I belong,'" Franke said. "It's like the greatest group of guys I've ever been with. It was just amazing. The experience through it all – it's just amazing."
Franke has vowed to continue to add to his stat sheet during the junior varsity state tournament this weekend.
"The thing that I've liked the most is definitely my first goal," Franke said. "It's just been amazing. The group of guys here is just so fun. I have three goals on the season. It's not going to stop me. I'm scoring more. Just wait – this tournament – I'm scoring so many goals."
Splitt doesn't have any doubt. He has coached water polo for more than 20 years but nothing else could match that moment when Franke scored a goal in Northwest Ohio.
"Of all the things that I've been a part of – I've been a part of state championships, I've had a chance to travel with national teams, I've done a lot of things in water polo – and that moment is my favorite moment I've every experienced," Splitt said.
As all of Franke's teammates watched him speak before a practice at Keating Natatorium this week, there were reflections on the special journey of this season, and how that connects to the school's faith mission.
"We are men for others," Splitt said. "And we are not about ourselves. We're about the magis – we're about for the greater glory. And this is one of the things, every day we get a chance to celebrate that. It's not about me as an individual. It's about how I can help others around me do more than what they thought was possible. And every day we get to live that on this team."
Franke said the impact the water polo program has had on his life is immeasurable. He would like others who may be considering a sport to give it a try if possible. You never know where it could lead.
"I just advise you to get involved," Franke said. "Go have fun. You may meet a great group of guys like these guys. I've never seen anybody have my back like these guys have my back. It's just a group group of guys."