The sport of water polo has lost its share of marquee water polo programs over the years with schools like UMass, Villanova, Slippery Rock and Boston College dropping the sport. However, we have gained a couple schools in the last ten years that have become extremely competitive. One of those schools is NAIA power California Baptist University.
Rick Rowland is the only coach this school has ever known as he founded the water polo and swimming programs in 1999. In a quick period of time, he has turned California Baptist into a perennial Top 20 team. In fact, it only took two seasons for him to achieve a national ranking of #14 (still the highest in school history). The coach of the 2007 NAIA Champions attended Pepperdine University where he swam and played water polo for his father (Rick Rowland Sr.). I got a chance to sit down and discuss Lancer water polo with Coach Rowland and below is our interview.
California Baptist has become a fixture in the Top 20 over the past couple of years. What would you say was the biggest hurdle for you in getting your team to that level?
Scheduling and recruiting the first few years were the biggest hurdles. The good news was that we had a beautiful new facility and we had financial aid packages to award student athletes that were interested in attending a Christian university and were willing to apply. People did not know what to think of us. When we scheduled the first few years we were basically a tournament team and it was difficult to schedule head to head games with top teams unless we bumped into them at tournaments. At the Slugfest at UCSC in 1999 we luckily bumped into UC Davis and USAFA in the same day and upset both of them. People did not even know we were at the tourney. After that weekend we jumped right to #18 in the collegiate poll and people starting learning about our program. We were pretty excited as a group.
Aaron Steiger looks to be off to a great start to the season. What makes him the great player that he is?
In my opinion he is one of the top utility players in the country. He has incredible leg strength and a drive to win; he does not like to lose. His leg and upper body strength puts him in position to go from two-meters to two-meters on both defense and offense, not many players can do this or are willing to take on this task. Aaron had 128 steals last season mostly taking the ball directly from 2 meters from some of the best teams in the country. Aaron played at El Dorado HS in Orange County. He started at El Dorado from his freshman to senior year and played against many of the top youth players in the country week in and week out to hone his skills along with a strong club regimen of training.
While Aaron Steiger seems to get the bulk of the headlines due to his prolific goal scoring, Chris Morgan seems to be an unsung hero as I noted he has led your team in assists the past two seasons. Can you tell us a little about him and what he means to your squad?
Chris is a senior leader and most importantly he is a strong left-handed shooter and passer. He is our set-up guy that puts our plays in motion. The lefty to righty combo is a great thing. If they overplay Chris it opens up 2 meters and if they give him space he looks to attack and shoot. He plays well with both Steiger brothers, he played at El Dorado HS with both of them and continued feeding both of them the ball while he has been at CBU. Ryan Steiger who graduated last year is our all-time leading scorer and was an All-American here at CBU. More than half of the Steiger's goals came from assist via Chris Morgan. Chris has broken our team record for all-time assists with over 160 assists to date.
What newcomers to the squad do you feel are going to have a major Impact on the rest of your season?
We have a new squad of talented freshman that are both in and out of the starting line-up and playing big minutes off the bench.
Freshman Peter Hines: Utility All American from Riverside Poly HS, guard and sets for us, great hands.
Freshman Brent Troutman: Good size Attacker was All-American from Santiago HS and club team CHAWP, very fast in transition.
Chris Toy: Freshman Attacker, a Junior National team member from Canada that brings great international experience and poise.
Norbert Karoly: Attacker and mature passer and shooter from Budapest, Hungary via
Chris Gwinn: Attacker, All-CIF player from CIF finalists Granite Hill HS and San Diego Shores, a strong perimeter shooter.
Nick Schofield: Utility player from Damien HS in La Verne and USWP experience with club team CHAWP water polo is another player who will be a contributor for us.
Is there any special motivation you or your team derives by carrying that NAIA banner into games against NCAA teams?
We get very excited about playing any ranked NCAA teams. Playing NCAA teams on a consistent basis and defeating them gives us great pride and visibility for our program. Playing NCAA schools is great promotion for NAIA water polo as we are constantly trying to add teams yearly in the NAIA. We want to help collegiate water polo grow and show that NAIA schools are a viable option for any level of athlete we are recruiting. That is why we instituted the NAIA National Invitational, which was held at CBU last November. We look at the NAIA National Invite as our postseason play and almost like the NIT for water polo. Anyone in NAIA or NCAA is welcome to attend. An NCAA school Chapman University joined us last season at our season ending Invite. Current NAIA institutions fielding varsity water polo are: CBU, Concordia University of Irvine, Fresno Pacific University, Lindenwood University, Missouri and Azusa Pacific University, (women only) adding men soon, Biola University will potentially be adding men and women soon.
What do you believe is the main difference between running an NAIA program and the NCAA programs you compete against?
We currently have no clearinghouse at present time but will add one soon. We look specifically at grades, SAT or ACT, class rank and fit. All NAIA schools offer great athletic and academic scholarship packages. There is no current limitation on the number of games played in and out of our season; there is more flexibility in offseason training and less recruiting restrictions. We are allowed contact and visits prior to high school athlete's senior year. We can also field tryouts. We also play as a team in Premier League and commit to summer training and play during the summer months. Many Division III schools have training restrictions in offseason and summer. Most NAIA schools are faith-based institutions and at NAIA schools like CBU we have weekly chapel, weekly team devotions and a staff and faculty that integrate faith with learning.
With that my interview with the coach of the premier NAIA program concluded. It will be interesting to see if their success helps fuel the growth of the sport at the NAIA level. The more colleges that play varsity water polo, the better it is for our sport.