In sports as in life, there is often times a "me-first" attitude that dominates. Instead of thinking about the common good of a sport or a society, in too many instances the thought that if it helps me a little then who cares if hurts somebody else a lot governs. I think that is what made Santa Clara's water polo team extending a helping hand to UC-Davis when the Aggies were on the verge of having their program dropped so special. That the Broncos would step up to the plate to help a conference rival displayed a sense of sportsmanship and compassion that many could not imagine.
With that as a backdrop, I caught up with the leader of the Broncos this past month to discuss Santa Clara water polo. Keith Wilbur arrived at Santa Clara in 2002 and is the program's all-time winningest coach. This past season, Wilbur led the men's team to its highest ever ranking of tenth in the nation and a third-place finish in the Western Water Polo Association Championships. Prior to inheriting the role of head men's and women's coach at Santa Clara, Wilbur was the men's water polo coach at Menlo School, where he coached four high school All-Americans and led the team to the CCS Championships three times in his four years there. The Princeton graduate had an illustrious college career as he spearheaded the Tigers to three Ivy League Championships and the 1992 East Coast Championship. He was a member of the U.S. National Team in 1997-98 and competed at the 1997 World University Games in Italy. Below is my interview with him.
Last season, your squad was a top twenty mainstay and made the semifinals of the WWPA Tournament before being upended by Loyola Marymount. Santa Clara returns a lot of talent from that team and could be poised to make bigger waves. What does your team need to do to crack the national top ten and win the WWPA?
We do have a lot of guys coming back, but we also lost a very talented senior class. In order to get better, it is important that every returner comes back a better player – stronger, faster, smarter, and more experienced. This starts with everything we have been doing since the end of last season… conditioning, weights, and offseason workouts. It is also important what we do this summer, and our whole team has committed to playing summer club which is good. The guys will get a chance to see really good competition this summer, and I think that will help them develop a lot. This will lead right into the college season where we have our toughest schedule ever. I really think in order for us to take that next step, we need to keep playing as many top ranked teams as possible. The more we do this, the better we will get, and that will give us the best chance of winning those types of games in conference at the end of the year.
Recruiting is also a factor, and I think we have one of our strongest and deepest classes coming in. I am never sure how good our freshmen will be or how quickly they will adapt to the college level until that first week of practice and that first game, but I am still really excited about this recruit class. I would not be surprised if we had two or three freshmen really make significant contributions this season, and new talent that comes with youth and exuberance can sometimes really raise the level of play on a team.
Can you tell us a little bit about the graduated Jack Wall and what makes him the elite player that he is?
Jack Wall is an elite player because he is very talented, and he knows how to work really hard. He is physically gifted in terms of strength and speed, and he also has an amazing arm. In the weight room our trainer had us do some flexibility drills, and he could not believe how flexible Jack’s shoulder was. He said it was something he’d never seen before. I think that’s why Jack can shoot the ball so incredibly hard. He also works on his shot all the time, so he is extremely accurate and very good at reading goalies. It is easy to talk all about his shot, but Jack does a lot of things very well. He really enjoys the physical part of the game, and he will mix it up with anybody, especially at two-meter defense and on counters. He has been great for our program, and I really hope the national team gives him a good look now that he has graduated. I think he just needs the opportunity to play with other elite players on a consistent basis, and there is no telling how good he can get.
I thought James Case was one of the more underrated players in the country last season. Can you tell us what makes him the effective player that he is?
James does a lot of things very well, but his speed, quickness, and acceleration are what separate him from most other players. Over the past couple of years, James has gotten better and better at using his speed in different aspects of the game. He has always won sprints and countered well, but now he is driving more and getting inside water, and he is a better finisher in front of the cage. On defense, he has gotten very good at using his quickness to front two-meter, he covers a ton of water when gapping, and he is getting more steals when we are in a press. He has an edge on most guys because he is faster, and he is learning how to use that to his advantage in most situations. That is what makes him really effective.
Michael Wishart had a nice campaign for your squad in the cage. What makes him the strong goalie that he is?
Michael is one of the hardest working players I have ever coached, and he puts a ton of time into training. He does not have the size of most college goalies, but he makes up for that with his leg strength, positioning, and quickness. I feel his greatest attributes are his anticipation and reaction time. Sometimes it seems like he knows something is going to happen before it actually happens, and he is already there to make a block. He has also started every game since his freshmen year, and I think that experience is incredibly valuable.
Santa Clara was the first team to jump in and try to lend a helping hand to UC-Davis when their program was on the verge of being cut. I thought that was one of the most incredible gestures I have seen in sports in quite sometime. For many the reaction might have been, "good, that's one less team we have to beat to make the NCAA Final Four." Can you tell us about how proud you were of your guys stepping up to help UC-Davis and which players were most instrumental in that effort?
Yes, I was really proud of my guys and their response to the UC-Davis situation. UC-Davis is a big rival for us because we are in the same conference, we are close geographically, and we usually match up pretty well in terms of our level of play. I think rivalries are one of the best things about sports. Our games against UC-Davis are something my players look forward to every year, and if UC Davis lost their program, that would mean we would lose a great rivalry. On top of that, every college men’s water polo program is important, and it would really hurt our sport to lose a team. All the guys on our team understood this, and I would say Mitch Klipa and Marcus Akerland were the most active in getting the word out and trying to raise money for the UC-Davis program. Our team, coach included, was extremely excited when we heard that the UC-Davis program was saved.
With that our interview ended. The Broncos of Santa Clara were part of an outstanding story outside the pool and they return a roster that will be a top twenty fixture inside the water. Do not be surprised if you see Santa Clara competing with Loyola Marymount on the WWPA Tournament's final day for an NCAA bid as Coach Wilbur has the pieces in place to make this season a special one.