It was a debate that always seemed to pop up every year. Could a community college or collegiate club team compete with or defeat an upper or middle-class Division I water polo school? At the NorCal Invitational, we finally got an answer to part of that question. Yes. Yes, it can happen. West Valley College not only defeated Long Beach State but they did it in a convincing fashion as they won or tied each quarter in the 11-7 victory. While this win may have grabbed the attention of the water polo world, West Valley has been an outstanding program for quite some time and is once again a State Championship contender in the California junior college ranks.
Bruce Watson first arrived in 1979 at West Valley and was a member of their coaching staff through 1984. He then returned to West Valley in 1990 and has been a Viking ever since. During that time, he has won over five hundred games and has transformed West Valley into a perennial contender for the state crown. More impressive is a look at the gallery of players that he has sent to four-year colleges. Since 1991, West Valley has produced fifty-eight players who have gone on to play at four-year colleges and universities. Incredible is the only word that can describe this run of success. I caught up with Coach Watson to discuss West Valley water polo and below is our interview.
West Valley impressively defeated Long Beach State at the NorCal Invitational. This is a win that the water polo world has been discussing since it occurred as Long Beach is an MPSF team and the victory happened at an important tournament. Can you tell us about that win and what you have been doing to build off of that?
It was quite an honor to be invited to the NorCal Invitational and I was aware there was some pressure on us to do well. The win over Long Beach State was not only good for our program, but for community college water polo programs as well. We were fortunate to catch them after a tough loss and they probably took us lightly. Our guys did play well and in this instance, we had enough talent to pull off the upset. Gavin is a tremendous coach and I think he will be using the loss as valuable motivation for his team the rest of the season. For us, it showed us that if we play hard, good things happen. Another lesson is that so much of the game is the athlete's mental attitude and confidence, and that if you go into a game feeling you can win, you most likely will. I understand there was some debate regarding whether West Valley should be ranked in the top twelve for four year schools following the win, but that is not realistic since we did not play well the next day, which was my fault, and lost two close games. It was still a great experience for us and an excellent learning situation. It is always good to get your athletes exposure to the top college coaches and to expose them to the level of play needed on the four year level. The goal of community college coaches is to help our athletes develop, mature, improve their water polo skills and swimming ability enough to have an opportunity to transfer and play at the next level.
What does West Valley need to do to win another State Championship?
I think if Golden West and Long Beach City dropped Men's water polo, our chances would improve slightly. Other than that, I think we just need to continue to improve, learn to play together and play the way I would like them to. One of the few disadvantages of coaching at a community college is that in most cases, you only get the athlete for two years. Getting them all on the same page in a short time is not always easy. At the NorCal tournament, our first opponent was USC and they not only have an unbelievable program and coach in Jovan, but some of their players have been together for three years or more. We had been together for just over a month. If it was two months, we might have beaten them. Kidding of course, our goal was to not get embarrassed and score a couple of goals which we did.
I was reviewing the listing of West Valley athletes who went on to four-year colleges and it is extremely impressive. What is the biggest piece of advice you give your athletes when they are choosing a four-year school?
We are very proud of that list and I always try to keep the players focused on the fact that transferring is their number one priority and reason for being on campus. We have former players who have recently graduated from USC, Pepperdine, Fordham, Queens College, Long Beach State, and Santa Clara University. We also have former players currently playing for UCLA, Cal, Pepperdine, Santa Clara University, UC Davis, UOP and Vanguard. Many of the other community college programs have lists like this and it is unfortunate that the value of community colleges is not understood by more people. They are a tremendous steppingstone for student/athletes to get to the next level. I think the most important piece of advice I give my athletes regarding four year schools is that there is a place for them and it is just a matter of finding it. Some can play Division I, others may find themselves happier at a smaller school or program where they will play more and not get lost in the crowd. There also are some athletes who will not play at a four year and this may be the highest level they are able to compete at. There are more considerations that go into the decision also, such as what they would like to study, their family's financial ability, and what type of coach they might do well under. I also tell players that when they are older, no one will ask where you went for the first two years of college, just what school you graduated from.
I was reviewing your roster and noted that West Valley has a nice blend of international, out of state and California players. What is West Valley's pitch to potential recruits?
I think that our pitch to athletes is tied to the priorities of why they are going to college and why they are playing water polo. There are a few players who might not want to go to a community college, they are the ones who have a chance to start and play all four years, but not everyone fits into that category. Many more players find that they don't see much action or none at all the first two years going straight to the four year. Academically, we strive to make sure that as many of the athletes as possible are successful and have the opportunity to transfer, and our Athletic Counselors work very hard helping them towards this end. Athletically, we try to maintain a high level of play, which helps with all of our athletes' development, not just in games, but during work outs as well. This hopefully prepares them for the level of play found at the four year schools. We also try to expose them to as many four year coaches and programs as possible.
Can you tell me a little bit about Bojan Hrlec and what makes him the great player that he is?
I went into coaching because it is so rewarding and because I get to deal with student/athletes like Bojan. He is one of my favorite people I have had the pleasure to coach, don't tell him though. Any coach would like a team of Bojans, his understanding of the game is amazing and he is mature beyond his years. I have found that teams are not successful, regardless of talent, if they don't have good leadership, and Bojan gives us that leadership. He also is very competitive and is a tremendous water polo player; he has become not just an excellent scorer, but a good defender as well. He is going to be a great addition to a high level four year program following West Valley.
With that our interview ended. This had to be one of the most fun articles I have gotten to write. I knew West Valley was a successful community college program, but I had no idea how many players used their experience with the Vikings as a steppingstone towards a four-year school. Perhaps their victory over Long Beach State got West Valley a large dose of publicity; however Coach Watson and his school have been doing exceptional work for a long time.