Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

The 2018 NCAA men’s season begins next month, with reigning NCAA champion UCLA opening play on September 1 with a match against Fresno Pacific at Spieker Aquatic Center.

Starting next week, Swimming World will preview the six conferences that will send teams to the NCAA men’s tournament. Before diving into a new season, there’s a fair amount of news to catch up with, including player and coaches moves as well as updates from the recently completed Junior Olympics at Stanford University.

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Remember this? NCAA varsity season coming soon! Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Closing the books on the 2018 JOs:

The Junior Olympics are an obvious magnet for college coaches and 2018 was no exception. Among the many men’s and women’s head coaches at Avery Aquatic Center were Cal’s Kirk Everist, Harvard’s Ted Minnis, Indiana’s Ryan Castle, Iona’s Brian Kelly, Virginia Military Institute’s Ryan Pryor, Princeton’s Dustin Litvak and Derek Ellingson. Also on hand were John Vargas, head coach for Stanford men’s team, and John Tanner, the Cardinal’s women’s head coach. Their team’s home pool hosted all eight days of tournament action.

Even though his team’s season is many months away Chris Vidale, head coach for the Marist women’s program, was excited by all he saw while out in California.

– What do JOs mean to you?

It’s fun to see kids develop—when they have a good day or bad day. It’s also fun from the college perspective; watching these kids succeed. Picking out what things you think are good for your program.

– What did you hope to accomplish out here?

I have some kids that I’ve been talking to that I really like. I’m hoping they’ll come to visit and see if they like Marist. This is where you’ve got to go shopping! You might find some diamonds in the rough. If you want to be competitive in such a grass roots sports, this is where you have to do it.

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Allan Huckins. Photo Courtesy: Gerry Raymonda

Another Eastern stalwart took in the action but from a new perspective. Alan Huckins, formerly Head Coach at Hartwick College, is now an assistant coach at the Air Force Academy. He spoke to Swimming World about coaching changes in the service academies, where his new boss Ryan Brown takes over from Jeff Heidmous, and old friend and rival Luis Nicolao ended up back at the U.S. Naval Academy.

I’ve known Louie since we were ten; we swam on rival swim teams, went to rival high schools. I played at Slippery Rock when he was at Navy, I coached Hartwick when he was at Princeton.

Now it’s me and Louie again—Air Force, Navy.

– There’s higher bar for admission at the Air Force Academy.

Absolutely. It takes a different type of person—definitely those with discipline. The [Air Force] Academy offers so many great experiences that once students give it a shot, it may be something that really interests them.

– Getting back to NCAAs.

Ryan’s taking over after being there for seven years. We’re bringing in some new thinking to rejuvenate the program. We made NCAAs three or four years ago and we’re looking to get back.

Swimming World also ran into old friend James Smith of Total Water Polo. Smith—as always—had something to say; about the youth action on display in Avery (his 12U Boys team finished 11th in the Classic Division) and polo’s future in Austin, Texas.

– How did your team do?

It was fun to see them react to this kind of environment. This is the best water polo setting in the country, and they got to play at Stanford.

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Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

– What will it take to grow the sport in Austin, the Texas capital? 

The chances of UT Austin starting a water polo team on the [NCAA] varsity level is about the same as me winning the Miss America contest—which is zero!

I know [the university] has been solicited and they’ve replied with a very terse: “No thank you.”

If there’s going to be growth at the university or college level in Texas it’s going to be like Austin College. It will be Southwest College [or] Trinity College. These are smaller schools that can afford to have both men and women’s polo programs, and hopefully create a bit of gravity in the state of Texas.

Austin College is going to have trouble finding competition; the closest is McKendree [600 miles away]. Mark Lawrence is a guy who’s spent time on both the East and West Coasts; he’s [prepared to] fly to both coast but how long is that sustainable?

Is the coaching carousel completed?

Nicolao made the biggest splash in the coaching ranks, jumping ship at Princeton—where over two decades he compiled a stellar 868-316 (.733) record coaching both men and women—to the U.S. Naval Academy, where he was a star performer for the Middies.

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Dustin Litvak. Photo Courtesy: UCLA Athletics

This led to the most noteworthy hire for the coming season: Dustin Litvak. The California native—recently a top assistant at UCLA—took Princeton up on an offer to coach their men’s team; it turned out to be a two-for-one arrangement. Not only will Litvak lead one of the East’s most prestigious programs, he’ll also be an assistant coach to Derek Ellingson, recently named as the head women’s coach for the Tigers.

Another Northeast Water Polo Conference team that experienced coaching turnover was MIT, where head coach Dave Andriole resigned following a disappointing 2017 season.  Stepping into the Engineers’ coaching void is top assistant Bret Lathrope, like Litvak a product of Adam Wright’s program at UCLA that has produced NCAA men’s titles three of the past four years.

Coach Wright, following an extended training session in Europe, responded by email about how UCLA’s success extends East through Lathrope and Litvak.

It’s my job to put my past players and/or assistant coaches in a position to become head coaches. I am very happy for both Dusty and Bret and believe this is a big win for the East Coast. Their experiences as both players and coaches at the highest level will no doubt serve both of their programs well. 

My hope is that they will give their student athletes the confidence and understanding that they can achieve anything they want whether in the water or outside the water—especially when their college experience is over.

Looking further west, Jeff Heidmous’ departure after 25 seasons and 328 victories at the Air Force Academy, the most in program history, gave his top assistant a shot at the head coaching job. Ryan Brown wisely snapped up Huckins; both will work to return the Falcons to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012.

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Chris Oeding, Lazar Andric, David Kasa. Photo Courtesy: LBCC

Also changing coaches was Whittier College. The Poets crafted the right message to woo David Kasa as a replacement for Justin Pudwill, who resigned from the head men and women’s coaching positions after 11 season that included a school record 339 wins and four NCAA berths (men; 2013, 2014; women; 2015, 2016). Kasa spent 15 seasons as an assistant coach at Long Beach City College; a couple of notable players that he coached are Lazar Andric, who went on to great success at Cal (national title in 2016; now an assistant coach) and Sasa Branisavljevic, the head coach of Vanguard Aquatics, one of the country’s most successful age group programs.

McKendree, which last year played its first-ever men’s varsity match, is already on a new coach in Year Two. Ryan Hall—who departed last spring for an assistant position at Redlands, his alma mater—put his assistant, Colleen Lischwe, in position to be one of the few women in NCAA varsity athletics to be head coach of a men’s program. Lischwe is also Head Coach for Bearcats’ women’s polo, which in their inaugural season finished seventh (out of eight teams) in the Western Water Polo Association.

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A first-year coach will take the reins for men’s and women’s water at Austin College. Mark Lawrence, one-time head coach at MIT as well as an assistant under Felix Mercado at Brown as well as Nicolao at the Naval Academy, will be charged with the important task of building an NCAA varsity program in the heart of the country’s most promising region for polo growth.

Interestingly, Lawrence played polo at Queens College in New York City for Princeton’s Ellingson—before the school dropped varsity status for the sport in 2011.

Where is polo water bluest?

There’s been the usual volatility of player transfers, led by the departure of Sawyer Rhodes from Stanford for the (apparently) greener pastures of University of Southern California, where the lefty will push Thomas Dunstan on the Trojan depth chart. While not unprecedented, the transfer is also addition by subtraction, as MPSF rival Stanford loses an important piece prior to a season when the Cardinal are slated to host the NCAA men’s tournament—an event that Stanford has missed out on the past three years.

There are of course many significant freshmen washing into the pools at programs all over the country; one noteworthy newcomer is Hannes Daube, who will begin his USC college career in a week (school for Trojans begin on August 22).

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Hannes Daube. Photo Courtesy: USA Water Polo

Swimming World got to speak with Daube at JOs, where his Cozy Boys team captured a 9-7 decision over Stanford Water Polo Club.

I have a lot of work to put in and I know the guys on that team as well. My sister [Elke] went there [2011-14] and I know the Trojan tradition is strong—I can’t wait to represent USC.

– Playing with national teammate Marko Vavic.

[Marko] is one of my best friends and we work really well together. We’ve been playing together for a while now. He definitely has a bright future—and hopefully we do well together.

Jake Pearson of Ransom Everglades in Miami, was another rising freshman at the 2018 JOs. Ticketed for John’s Hopkins men’s team this fall, Pearson was excited to get going with a new experience, albeit on the East Coast in Baltimore, MD.

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Matt Farmer. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Also on the move—from Australia to Italy by way of Illinois, is Matt Farmer. The one-time UCLA standout will continue his passion for water polo, signing a professional contract to play for Circolo Canottieri Ortigia, a First Division club in Sicily. Farmer starts his adventure on August 22nd in Southern Italy; Nikola Vavic—part of four NCAA title winners during a stellar USC career (2010-13)—will continue his playing career with a professional contract in Northern Italy for Sporting Club Quinto in Genoa, also known as the home city of Pro Recco.



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