The acknowledged epicenter of the water polo universe in the USA is California. The pinnacle of water polo achievement outside of the Olympics is the NCAA, whose top division and Olympic pipeline; the MPSF is also centered in California.
In the midst of the NCAA seasons, it is easy to forget that there is much more water polo competition outside of the 60 programs in the NCAA…with 243 Collegiate clubs competing and vibrant high school programs in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New England, Maryland, Michigan, Florida, Ohio, Chicago, St Louis, Utah and Texas.
Each year, the WPP Varsity Recruits section of the message board consists of the California-Hawaii All American list, at the bottom of which is simply appended “Other”, an afterthought which includes the few standout high school players from the other 48 states and the remainder of the world.
Here in the Midwest, water polo players never have a chance to see top level international competition and rarely, if ever, see NCAA competition other than the 2 final games aired each year on CSN. Most of the high school coaches never played NCAA Water Polo although a few played Collegiate Club. Water Polo programs are usually limited to high school season as vast distances through mile after mile of cornfield make simple interstate competitions both expensive and time consuming.
The ODP Program seems to be changing this in the Midwest. Last year saw Chris Wendt of Chicago and the Midwest Zone ODP Junior Team actively recruited by programs in the MPSF and Chris is now finishing his first year at UCLA.
2010 led many California coaches to make their first trip to Ohio during the feeding frenzy to recruit Dan Matulis of Milford High School outside Cincinnati. A 2 year participant in the ODP Program, the 7’ tall 235 lb left hander caught much attention when training with Doug Peabody and the Junior National Team in California. In fall 2009, Dan and his parents began to realize that he might have options outside of club water polo at the University of Cincinnati and an occasional chance to “Go Nutty” with the Ohio Squirrels Masters club. This February, Dan became the first player from the 40+ year old Ohio Schoolboys League to sign a National Letter of Intent for a scholarship to play NCAA Water Polo for Gavin Arroyo at Long Beach State University.
At first glance, Dan is…well, BIG… but not at all ungainly or awkward despite the size. The first time I met Dan, I asked him how he had enjoyed the ODP program. Dan told me humorously that Doug Peabody yelled at him a lot but despite that fact, his experience with Doug was so far the best learning experience in his life and like many, his respect for Doug is huge. I would have made the 5 hour flight simply to watch Doug Peabody yelling at 7’ tall Dan. What a visual…
Dans participation in JO’s and ODP has made him easily the best player in Ohio schoolboy water polo but far from being full of himself as one would expect in a 17 year old top player from an entire state, he is laid back, funny, polite and very aware that he has a lot to learn. Dan appears to me to be one of the few top high school boys who candidly admits that his game needs some help. This realistic attitude led him to look primarily at schools whose coach would be willing and able to spend substantial time developing his potential.
We always tell kids to choose a school for academics and Dans parents, Rick and Jan, know this better than most-both are Ph.D graduates of U Conn-but both acknowledge that Dan has a passion for water polo and have supported his desire to pursue his Bachelors degree at a school whose coach optimizes his chances to achieve his dream…a place on the 2016 Olympic Water Polo Team.
Despite the long drives from Ohio to Michigan for ODP and JO’s practices, Rick and Jan Matulis are thrilled with the ODP program that has opened Dans options in so many directions. For Dan Matulis, the costs of ODP have been repaid many times over in the college scholarships he has received from Long Beach. We expect to similar opportunities arise for Dans younger brother Dave, who is still in high school but following his older brothers path through the JO’s and ODP programs.
As Dans mother Jan recently put it, “Last year at this time, we were looking at D2 schools in the CWPA wondering if Dan might have a chance to play varsity there. A year in the ODP Program has opened an entire new vista of choices for him to continue to play a game that he loves so much."
I caught up with Dan to bring a little insight into the 17 year old who may become the tallest international lefty in the world.
You live in the greater Cincinnati area of Ohio where there is no age group water polo and no NCAA events that highlight the sport in your area. Tell us how you got into water polo and what attracted you to the sport?
I’ve been on our club swim team since I was 7 and my coach was also the high school water polo coach, and he introduced me to the sport when I was 12 during a swim team fun day, and I loved it right away. Then I started playing organized water polo when I was a freshman in high school.
We need to ask the question that so many people are asking…at nearly 7’ tall and a lefty to boot, how did your high school basketball coach let you get away? Was there a lot of pressure on you to go into basketball rather than water polo?
I played basketball starting when I was in 5th grade, but I decided to be on the junior high swim team in 7th grade instead of play basketball. Then when I got in high school I just knew I wanted to play water polo. Besides, the basketball coach is good friends with my water polo/swim coach, so I just never got bothered about basketball from that point on.
You are on your high school swim team. What were your best times this year? Do you feel your speed is a positive or negative in your game when playing at the JO or ODP level?
I’m our high school team’s backstroker and I swim a 56 in the 100 back and a 51 in the 100 free. I feel like my speed is a positive over the course of the game because I have good endurance from swimming and I have good water polo quickness and awareness.
Ohio is a long way from the USA Water Polo Zone center in Chicago. When did you first compete in a USA Water Polo Event (Junior Olympics Qualifying tournament)? How far did you and your parents have to travel to get there and how did you manage the training so far from home?
The summer before my junior year in high school was my first time at the Jr. Olympics Qualifying tournament. We had to drive 6 hours from Cincinnati to Chicago for the tournament. Since we don’t have any USA water polo teams in Ohio, I played for Rockford Aquatic Club in Michigan. Since the team was so far away, I trained at home by swimming, lifting, and shooting on my own.
We understand that your first exposure to the National Water Polo scene was at JO’s. How different did you find the water polo in California from what you have at home for the same age groups? Were you surprised at the difference?
I played for Rockford’s 18 & under team as a 16-year-old and was surprised at the difference between national water polo and Ohio water polo. Immediately I noticed a difference in the speed and aggressiveness of the game. But I definitely enjoyed it!
You have participated in the ODP Program from the beginning of the program. Tell us a little bit about your ODP experience and whether you feel it was helpful in developing you as a player. Did you feel yourself to be far behind the players from other parts of the country who are able to train and play all year long?
The ODP program was very helpful in teaching me new skills and developing me as a player. I enjoy that we get to play the best across all the country in ODP and it is a valuable experience. We do a lot of training and learn a lot in our ODP weekends, but it’s hard to keep up with other parts of the country with players who get to train all through the year because we only have 1-2 practices a month. And that’s all we have for water polo unless we’re in the high school season.
You are the first water polo player in Ohio to be actively recruited with scholarship offers and National Letters of Intent. As such, you and your parents had little advice and needed to do it all on your own. What did you like about the process of being a sought after athlete? What did you like the least?
I enjoyed meeting all the coaches and learning about their programs. I also enjoyed my recruiting trips and getting to meet all the players. The thing I liked the least was sitting down and having to decide between programs.
You were one of the top 5 recruits of 2009, actively recruited by most of the top MPSF schools. Your parents both attended East Coast college’s so unlike many players from California, you had no “legacy” schools in California at the top of your list. What were you looking for when you tried to decide which offer to take? What attracted you to Long Beach State and Coach Arroyo?
I know that I have a lot to learn in water polo and I wanted to go somewhere where I could learn a ton and get valuable playing time. I enjoyed all the schools I visited, but what attracted me to Long Beach State was a combination of feeling comfortable there, the larger school size, and the fact that they are in the MPSF conference. I also felt comfortable with Coach Arroyo and I’m excited to learn from him. He was recommended by several knowledgeable people in the water polo community. LBSU’s offer also showed that they were confident in my development and that they knew I would be a good player.
Many of your National Team coaches feel that you have the potential to work toward the Mens Senior National Team for the 2016 Rio de Janiero Olympics. Is that a goal of yours at this point?
Yes, that is something I’m going to work hard for. I’m lucky that I have so many people interested in helping me develop as a player.
Do you know at this point if you will red shirt your first season? What do you think your main challenges will be transitioning from the Ohio Schoolboy League to the MPSF?
I really don’t know if I’ll redshirt at this point. That’s something I’ll talk to Coach Arroyo about after we see how ready I am before the season starts. It will be a big change transitioning from Ohio to the MPSF, but my experiences in ODP and the National Training Team will definitely help me to transition smoothly because I know more about what to expect and how I’m going to adjust.
Enquiring minds want to know…Is there any truth to the rumor that LBSU will have you scraping cheek cells in the Microbiology department as work study to help them clone a few 7’ left handers for the other LBSU teams?
Well, I haven’t heard from them about that yet, but it would be sweet to have a clone my size!
All of us at Water Polo Planet wish Dan the best in his first season at Long Beach State. We urge everyone local to Long Beach to take a few minutes next year to meet Dan and give him some encouragement to achieve his Olympic dream. It is great for those of us in the Heartland of America to see our native son move up to the big time and we know he will need some local fashion guidance in making that transition to Aloha shirts and flip flops!