Their name sticks out the moment you peruse the national polls. Nestled in the top ten they reside ahead of water polo powers like Navy and UC San Diego. They stand just a shade behind schools that own national titles in UC Santa Barbara (whom they took to overtime this season) and UC-Irvine. It is a program that still hasn’t celebrated its five-year anniversary; however they are playing like a squad that has been winning games for decades.
They are Concordia and the Eagles are in the midst of a season that is the best in NAIA history. Concordia stands at 17-3 with the three losses coming to UCLA, UC San Diego and UC Santa Barbara. The Eagles have beaten established programs like Navy, Pacific and Air Force and are looking strong heading down the stretch of the season. I sat down with their Head Coach Steve Carrera to discuss his program and below is our interview.
The player on your roster that jumps right out at me is Caleb Hamilton. In 2007, he was considered the best high school recruit in the country. He's a former U.S. Junior National team player who arrived at Concordia after a stint at Pepperdine where he scored thirty-one goals as a freshman. Can you tell us about him and if you think he will get back to being a player that can contend for a spot on our National team?
Caleb is an amazing player. He is a playmaker and takes a lot of pride in making his teammates better. He is also a great leader and competitor which really carries over to the other players. I have known Caleb and his family for several years. Even before I started coaching him in high school I would always interact with his family. His older brother swam with me in high school and his sister Sarah went to high school with my younger brother. He isn’t just another player for me, we are really close and having him around at the infant stages of Concordia has really helped the program explode. Now, we have several good players that are playing with him here at Concordia, but I think Caleb can contend for a National Team spot if he wants to. The jump in success at Concordia I think shows that he is playing at a very high level and his love for the game is still there. I am hoping he is at some of the open tryouts that the USA is having starting in January.
Jure Belamarich is a big player for your team. Can you tell us a little about what makes him so effective?
Jure is our team captain and he meant everything to us in year one of our program (2007). He was the go-to guy and did not disappoint. I decided to redshirt him last year so that I could build and develop some of the guys that came in and that was probably one of the best things that could have happened. His natural position is a defender and setup guy. In year one, we didn’t have as many offensive weapons so he had to do it all. Now he is focusing on playing good defense and setting his teammates up.
What does your squad have to do in order to become a top twenty fixture?
I think the main thing we can do to stay in the top twenty is keep playing top twenty schools. We have been extremely fortunate that teams and programs have given us the opportunity to play them. Programs like Pepperdine, NAVY, UCLA and UCI have played us since year one and two. I really admire them for giving us the opportunity to develop the sport as a whole. Most of the coaches have been so supportive because they recognize how important it is to have new men's and women's water polo programs start up across the country. Of course there are some teams that just don’t want to play us (I won’t mention names) but for the most part everyone has been really supportive. So now that we have shown that we can play with some of the top schools, I think those schools are going to be more willing to give us games and let us into tournaments like NorCal and SoCal.
Is there any special motivation you or your team derives by carrying that NAIA banner into games against NCAA teams?
Not sure if the extra motivation comes from carrying the NAIA banner or just the fact that we are such a small school with limited facilities and limited funds. We go into games against NCAA teams knowing that we can compete with them based solely on our talent. But with that said, we are proud to be NAIA and we want to show other NAIA schools that starting water polo programs is a positive thing. There are so many NAIA schools that have swimming already and several of them are starting polo programs in the next couple of years. It’s going to become a good option for several student-athletes.
What do you believe is the main difference between running an NAIA program and the NCAA programs you compete against?
I can’t really speak for the NCAA because I have never been in that position. For the NAIA I can tell you that this is the way water polo should be run in my opinion. Technically we can compete within twenty-four weeks throughout the year. We don’t have any restrictions on practice hours. We don’t have any restrictions on recruiting. Now some people would probably think this was a bad thing, but with a sport like water polo where there is not much after college, I think the less restrictions the better. Now in exchange for that we also have very expensive schools that are usually pretty small. So it makes it difficult to recruit high-level players when they can go to a state institution that is cheaper. Now in terms of the big NCAA schools the difference in programs is talent depth. Some teams are redshirting First-Team High School All-Americans. That’s hard to compete with.
With that our interview ended. At the beginning of the year, I talked about how Whittier could replicate the small school success that Queens College had from the mid 1990s to the early part of this decade. While I still have faith in the Poets, perhaps I should have taken a look at a Queens College graduate in Steve Carrera and what he had formed at this small school in Irvine. The seeds were there with Caleb Hamilton joining a group that was on the rise last season. Now the plant is in full bloom and Carrera’s squad could be ready to make further inroads into the top ten. Keep an eye on Concordia down the stretch of this season as these Eagles are on the hunt.