The SCIAC is a conference that is often overlooked when discussing the NCAA water polo scene. Doing so can be a dangerous proposition if you are an opponent as Redlands, Pomona-Pitzer and Whittier have all become adept at knocking off “superior” Division I squads. When evaluating the accomplishments of the SCIAC elite, one squad that has truly stood out on both the men’s and women’s side are the Sagehens of Pomona-Pitzer. The men won back to back SCIAC Championships in 2007 and 2008 and are primed to climb that mountain again this season. On the women’s side, Pomona-Pitzer has qualified for the NCAA Tournament three times (2007, 2008 and 2010) in the past four years by virtue of winning the conference.
The leader of the Sagehens is Alex Rodriguez. He arrived at Pomona-Pitzer after serving as an Assistant Coach for Pepperdine and as the Head Men’s and Women’s Coach at Bonita High School in Southern California. As a player, Rodriguez was an All-American and a member of Pepperdine’s 1997 NCAA Championship squad. Earlier this month, I caught up with Alex Rodriguez to discuss Pomona-Pitzer water polo and below is our interview.
Your squad returns a number of key parts from last season and should contend for the SCIAC title while being formidable in the WWPA. What does your team have to do to capture that SCIAC crown and create havoc at WWPAs?
We are excited about our team and the chances of competing in the SCIAC conference and WWPA conference. We do return six of our seven starters from last year’s team. I also think we are getting faster and more athletic with our incoming recruits. Our bench in the past has been suspect, but I’m expecting a better group with the improvement of returning players and incoming freshman.
The key for our success this year will be our transition game and defense. I believe we will be much faster and more athletic this year, which was our weakness last year. In the SCIAC conference, we have some very talented teams and the competition will be tougher than ever before. In the WWPA conference, I think matchups are important. We have some powerhouse teams that are hard for us to compete with. We need to be flexible in our strategy to be able to compete with some of those teams
Ben Hadley has been an outstanding player for your squad. Can you tell us a little bit about what makes him so effective?
I have never had an athlete that has had more passion for the game of water polo than Ben. He loves to play, even at 6:30 am in four on four drills. He trains as hard as anyone (swimming or lifting). He comes early to get extra shooting in before practice.
Ben gets a lot of attention for his shooting and offensive game, but what I believe makes him so effective is his endurance. Ben can play a lot of minutes and still counterattack each possession, control the ball on offense, counter back on defense and quarterback the defense. This sounds simple enough, but to be able to repeat these actions is a skill that is very important in college water polo. That ability to play at a high intensity level makes him stand out in my mind.
Ryan Balikian was also very solid for Pomona-Pitzer last fall. What makes him the All-Conference performer that he is?
Ryan is very gifted offensively. I believe he has been one of the top players in the conference since his freshman year. What makes him so valuable for us is his ability to attack defenses in multiple ways. He can post-up, shoot from the outside, drive and facilitate. Because of his versatility, he is a tough match-up for opposing teams and that opens up the rest of our offense.
Ryan is also a tough competitor that thrives on big moments. He does not shy away from the responsibility of a high pressure situation and that allows him to succeed especially given the competition of our demanding schedule.
Let's look back at the success you had on the women's side last spring. Your women's team won the SCIAC and made NCAAs. What was the biggest factor behind that championship campaign?
Last year’s women’s season was a challenging season for us. Pretty much everything that could go wrong did! One factor behind the women's championship season was our experience. We graduated five seniors who in four years won three SCIAC Championships and one DIII National Championship. This group was well prepared for the pressures of big moments and the younger girls fed off of their confidence. Throughout the season, we were forced to deal with challenges every team encounters such as injuries while at the same time dealing with unexpected obstacles all of which made focusing on water polo all the more difficult. By struggling through and persevering we were well prepared for focusing on our goal of winning a championship in the midst of emotional moments and pressures that may have overwhelmed a less experienced team.
I have noted over the past few years that your teams on both the men's and women's sides tend to really peak down the stretch of the season. Why is it that your teams seem to take a bigger step than the competition when championships are on the line?
In the SCIAC conference, we have restrictions on training. Most of our athletics don’t train in the summer and we have limited off-season training opportunities. So one of the reasons our teams peak is because we are behind others in training and conditioning. We also have a progression of installing aspects of our tactical game throughout the year. So as the season goes, we go through phases of training and tactics that push the peaking theory.
Another reason, my first year we lost in a conference tournament game and I left that game feeling that the opponent had more experience than us. We made simple errors and it was disappointing to me the way we played. With recruiting at Pomona Pitzer Colleges not being in our control, we decided to use our schedule as development. It is set up to play as many quality programs as possible so when we get to the SCIAC championship game, the experience advantage is ours.
Regarding championship games, our attitude is simple: Don’t be scared to lose! The season’s goal is to play in the SCIAC Championship for each team. Our training and tactics are preparing for that moment. Once a team gets there, it is almost a relief and we really try to enjoy that atmosphere and competition. It is a great feeling to have all the other conference teams, our parents and our friends watching.
With that our interview ended. When I studied what Pomona-Pitzer did last year, I have to say that I was surprised at how underrated their performance was. This was a team that defeated sides whom were ranked for a large part of last fall in Santa Clara and Cal Baptist. The Sagehens also knocked off the co-regular season champions in the CWPA Northern Division in Fordham and even played Long Beach State to a tight 10-6 early-season loss in which they were only down by two goals heading into the fourth quarter. Keep a close eye on Pomona-Pitzer as they head into this year’s campaign. The Sagehens return the core of last season’s squad and should be a force to reckon with in both the SCIAC and WWPA.