With the NCAA season beginning in under a month, we decided to speak with a coach of a team that we think will be playing in this season’s Final Four. John Loughran has led the Lions of Loyola Marymount to five Final Fours in the last seven years and he may be returning his finest team this fall as goalie Andy Stevens and drivers Tibor Forai and Mark Milovic are all back for this year’s campaign. They are joined on campus by highly touted Lithuanian National team member Edgaras Asajavicius. With that amount of firepower, it is no wonder that people are beginning to whisper that the MPSF’s stranglehold on the NCAA championship game will be broken again this season.
Coach Loughran came to Loyola Marymount after a successful stint at Queens College where he won the CWPA Northern Division in 1995 and 1996. This was at a time when the Northern Division was a murderer’s row as you had a beast in UMass along with an always strong St. Francis squad challenging for pole position. In our discussion below, we discussed both the current powerhouse which is Loyola Marymount along with his past successes in Flushing, Queens.
Five Final Fours in seven seasons. What do you believe is the biggest single factor that has made Loyola Marymount the dominant WWPA program?
I think we have worked hard to get athletes to LMU that are very committed. We have also had athletes come here who have grown into their roles. The strength of our program is player development and team chemistry. I think that has enabled us to play consistently at the championship level. The athletes we get are committed to the program and committed to getting better. A big part of our going to the conference championship game the last eight years has been the commitment by the University to the water polo programs. We have two great assistant coaches in Kyle Witt and Cara Colton, who are both former LMU players who have had success here. Our support staff is excellent as well. There have been many factors that have made LMU consistent and putting them all together has helped us have the success we have had the past eight years. I do not think it can be narrowed down to a single factor. It has been a team effort in all aspects.
Going into this season, the Lions are considered the heavy favorite to win the WWPA and get back to the Final Four. Not only that, but there are a lot of people out there who feel that your team has the pieces to get through to the Championship game. Is there any added pressure going into the season with such high expectations?
Every year we go into the season with short-term and long-term goals. We want to achieve our short-term goals first and if we do that our long-term goals are going to happen. Our goals are to have a successful regular season, put ourselves in position for a good seed in the Conference Championship tournament and to win the Conference Championship. After that, we will then start to really think about the next step. The next step of putting us in the Championship game, with the level of competitiveness that this NCAA season is going to have, is probably premature to talk about since we haven’t played with our full group yet. I feel the pressures are the same each season. The team needs to make improvements each and every day and work hard enough to put ourselves in position to compete for and win an NCAA Championship.
In my humble opinion, Andy Stevens was the best goalie at the NCAA Tournament as well as being one of the best three players there. How much confidence does your team derive as a unit knowing that you have arguably the best goalie in the water in every game you will play in this season? Also, what in your opinion makes Andy Stevens the special player that he is?
I would have to agree. Andy was the best goalie at NCAAs last year. He had an excellent tournament. Our defense is centered around Andy’s strengths. Over the past two seasons he has been at LMU, he has developed the qualities needed to be successful. He has always had great, natural talent and a great feel for the game, but he has now grown into one of our leaders. He has a great attitude and his work ethic has improved dramatically. He really approaches the game well and his ability to make big saves really instills great confidence in his teammates. Andy is a presence in the goal and he is capable of having a big impact in every game he plays in.
On the offensive end of the pool, Tibor Forai is coming off being named All-American as a true freshman. How has he been looking this off season and what are you expecting out of him this fall?
Tibor had a great freshman season and he played most of the 2007 injured (back). He has worked hard this summer to get his back to 100 percent and we are excited to see him play an entire season at full strength. It often takes a year for international players to adjust to the college game. With a year of experience and understanding how the game is played in college, he should be even more of a weapon for us. He is a very consistent player and what many people don’t realize because he scores so well, is that he takes great pride in his defense. He is an excellent defender. He was one of our leaders in steals last year and he has really developed into a great defensive player.
Can you tell us a little bit about your recruiting class and especially lefty Edgaras Asajavicius?
We did a really good job in our recruiting class in meeting our needs. We got some key pieces that will help us right away. Getting them to quickly gel with our returning senior class will be a big key to our success. Edgaras has international playing experience and has great size and speed. He will give us a second scoring threat and as a lefty he will cause match-up issues. He is a great fit here at LMU and we work hard on finding players who can not only bring us success but can be successful themselves outside of water polo. That was the case for our entire recruiting class. Edgaras is a great student and that played a large role in him choosing LMU. Both Tibor and Edgaras are interested in going to medical school and our pre-medicine programs here really attracted both of them. Michail Lipida is also joining our team from Lithuania this season. He will help us at the center position and I feel he can contribute right away. Robbie Pusic will also be entering LMU as a freshman and he has the potential to be a great player for us.
One of the most overlooked water polo stories of the 1990s was the way you built Queens College into a college water polo power. Tell me the steps you took to make that happen and what your fondest memory as Coach of the Knights was.
I was 24 years old when I got the job at Queens and it presented many challenges. It was a commuter school and had a shallow-end, deep-end pool. But in the end it was a great experience. It gave me the opportunity to learn on the job and it forced me to learn quickly. We were very active in recruiting and had success in bringing quality junior college players from California. For a couple of seasons we looked like a junior college all-star team. We also had a nice mix of European players as well. We had to make sure that they were mature enough to live on their own as Queens did not have dorms. In my first season our record was 4-24 and in my fourth and fifth seasons we played in the Eastern Championship game. I had a chance to work with great people, including Shelley Rothman, who has been an important part of the Queens program for many years. It was a lot of fun bringing in kids from different backgrounds and watching them develop and work together to be successful. Queens won their first Eastern Championship the year I came to LMU and I was very proud of that team because it was a great achievement. I hope Queens College can become competitive again and bring the program back to contend for another Eastern title.
You had the opportunity to coach a person who in my opinion was the most underrated water polo player of the 1990s in Pedro DeLima. I can honestly say that he is one of the top five college players I have ever seen operate in 2-Meter. What made him great and would you agree that his name doesn't come up enough in the discussion of great college water polo players from that decade?
Pedro was one of the best athletes I have had the opportunity to coach. His strength in the water always amazed his teammates and me. He was a great two-meter player because of his leg strength and his game sense, but if we had different personnel, he could have been as effective as a center back and perimeter player. I feel he was good enough to play for any team in the country and we were very happy to have him at Queens. He was the type of player who was competitive in everything, the weight room, practice and games. He has been a triathlete and he was a great athlete at anything he chose to do. He went on to coach and led Queens to their first Eastern title after I left. Pedro moved back to Brazil where he has been very successful in his career and I hear he is surfing the biggest waves he can find.
With that my interview with Coach Loughran ended. I think the embodiment of what John Loughran has been at Queens College and Loyola Marymount is captured by the next quote. In search for a killer ending to this interview, I reached out to one of the first players Coach Loughran ever recruited. Marc Havran was an outstanding 2-Meter who helped lead Queens College to their first successes. When I asked him for his feelings about Coach Loughran, he offered “Coach Loughran has been a positive influence on my life, athletically and personally. His coaching, guidance, and support helped me achieve goals that I may never have.”