Nestled in the heart of Southern California stands an emerging water polo program that made a big splash on this year’s recruiting scene. The school that is most famously known for producing one Richard Milhous Nixon is hoping to rise up and snatch SCIAC glory in water polo for the first time since 2004. 2007 marked Justin Pudwill’s first year on the job and it was one in which Whittier played the bulk of the season with nine players. On the heels of that 9-20 finish and not discouraged by the rising price of gasoline, Pudwill hit the recruiting trail in a big way and nabbed a number of quality performers.
At Water Polo Planet, we got a chance to speak with Whittier College’s Head Coach Justin Pudwill. The Salem International graduate gave us some insight into the future of Whittier Water Polo and spoke about some of the exciting young talent that will be arriving on campus this fall in our interview below.
I noted that you are entering your second year as head coach of Whittier and your second year overall as a college coach. Tell me what has been your biggest challenge since entering the head coaching fraternity.
Although this is my second year as a head coach, I spent two seasons at Occidental College as an assistant. So I feel very comfortable with all of the coaches in the WWPA and the SCIAC. Having to replace Mitch Carty who was here for ten years is a big challenge. I think it is a big change for other coaches on deck to see myself representing Whittier College rather than Mitch who put Whittier College on the map as far as Water Polo goes.
What would you say is your offensive and defensive philosophy?
Last year (my first) we only had nine guys so I was limited to what we could actually run. I like to keep things fairly simple when it comes to offense. I believe that if you can do something perfect and limit your mistakes it is going to be hard for any team to defend what you do offensively. On defense again I try to stay simple with their assignments, but I did have an outstanding Goalie, which allowed me to be creative with our defense. This year will be a lot different since we will have great numbers and depth. Our offense is going to be unique and very fast this year.
It looks as if you were busy on the recruiting trail this offseason as the Poets have quite a haul coming in. Tell us a little bit about the class and if there is anyone in specific that we should be looking out for.
The biggest thing about this recruiting class is the speed. I believe we have about 8 guys that are a 22 or a 21 in their 50-yard free. This will help us tremendously. Also we have a lot of good size coming in. For guys that I think will make an impact, Cameron Lew is a lefty First-Team All-CIF player out of San Diego. He has been playing year round club water polo for at least four years at San Diego Shores. Also Wes Paulson from Hemet high school and CHAWP club team is somebody to keep an eye on. He is about 6'4" and goes a 21.5 in his 50 yard free. He was a powerful center his senior year and scored around 90 goals. Ryan Catino out of Capistrano Valley High School will probably be our fastest guy as a utility player. He goes a 47.8 in his 100-yard free and played in Europe last summer with his club team. Matt Villanueva is a goalie from La Serna High School and was a First-Team CIF Division III player. We have a lot of guys coming in and I would like to give you a little something about all of them, I will make sure Water Polo Planet gets the press release.
Chris Villanueva is a great player that seems to fly under the national radar. Give us some insight into him and what makes him the player he is. Also, what are you expecting out of him this fall?
Chris was tremendous for us last year. I believe he was in the top five in the nation for goals scored. Chris Villanueva is one of the purest shooters I have seen in a while. He pulled the load this past year for us. He got a lot of touches on the ball because we were not deep on our bench at all! His stats will change a little this upcoming year but I expect the same impact from him. Plus he will be our only senior, so he will have to be a huge leader for our young team.
What do you have to do to end the grip that Pomona-Pitzer and Redlands seemingly have on the SCIAC?
Both programs in the past couple of years have had great recruiting classes and depth on their benches. I believe we will be at the top of the SCIAC very soon. We had a great recruiting class and our numbers are looking great for next year, we need to get our rookies some experience and then we will see how they adapt to the college game.
Let's say I was a junior in high school looking for a college to go to. Why should I be interested in continuing my water polo career at Whittier?
Wow that is a great question. Opportunity is what I believe athletes should be looking for. Whittier College offers a top-shelf, private school, Liberal Arts education. We are 15 minutes from Los Angeles, and 20 minutes from Huntington Beach. I believe athletes come to Whittier for the opportunity that the school offers and what I offer to them with our programs. I guarantee my players that they will be the best water polo players they have ever been when they are done playing at Whittier College. Athletes can come to Whittier College and not have to redshirt their freshman year and work in on a roster of 50. They will be able to make an impact right away, if they can play within my system. I do not care if you are a freshman or senior I will play the best guys that I have. And last, I always take pride in being able to develop players to their highest ability. Good players become great, and great players become All-Americans. My program is unique from other programs. I coach men's water polo and men's swimming. This allows us to be together as a team for as long as possible. All of my water polo players swim. I believe this format will have huge dividends in the long run.
Being an alum of Salem International, I am assuming you might have a unique perspective on what is going on at UC Santa Cruz as Salem International dropped their program in 2005 and then brought it back last season. What are your thoughts on what is going on at UCSC and contrast that with what happened at your alma mater?
A complete loss to the Water Polo community. SIU had the same thing happen and even went on hiatus status for a year. During my time at SIU I had the pleasure of playing with some of the best players in the Nation. Also, Water Polo was the only avenue I had in getting myself into college and helping pay for that education. This is where I feel that Santa Cruz and the water polo community are going to be hurt the most. The experiences, and character building events, and the friends I made over the years I got to experience at Salem International and playing CWPA varsity water polo. That cannot be replaced. I feel bad for the athletes that are there because of water polo and I hope the best for them. I am glad SIU is getting back their program; I hope one day I can say the same for Santa Cruz. I know whoever is responsible for these actions will regret not having these quality student-athletes on their campus for years to come. I went to Salem International just because of water polo, and I am sure there are athletes at UCSC that did the same.
With that my interview with Justin Pudwill concluded. I look forward to watching Whittier’s new crop of recruits join the SCIAC battle and compete for first place against Pomona-Pitzer and Redlands. With some of the names heading off to the school this fall, it would not surprise me to see them make some noise at the WWPA Tournament in the upcoming years as well.