Sitting at #14 in the Water Polo Planet Poll and #13 in the CWPA poll is a team that has quietly started the campaign strong. Air Force has long fielded a good water polo squad and this season they have one that is looking like a contender in the WWPA. This is evidenced by a recent batch of good wins over teams like UC-Davis, Santa Clara and Concordia.
Jeff Heidmous returned to the helm of the Air Force Academy in 2010 and is the winningest coach in the program’s history. He led Air Force from 1986 through 1999 and posted a 232-202-1 career record during that time. All of his teams finished the season nationally ranked in the top twenty with five of his teams finishing in the national top ten. Air Force won WWPA titles in 1990 and 1994 and he led four teams to NCAAs. A two-time WWPA Coach of the Year, Heidmous was inducted into the USA Water Polo Hall of Fame in 2002. I caught up with Coach Heidmous to discuss his Falcons and below is our interview.
Your squad is off to a nice start to the season as you have risen to thirteenth in the polls and have notched wins over UC Davis and Santa Clara. What does your team need to do to win the WWPA and grab an NCAA berth?
A few things went our way against SCU and UCD. It was nice to win those games, but we must play more consistently, especially on defense and man-up opportunities, before we can consider ourselves a championship level team. Over the next twelve days we have conference dual matches with SCU, UCD and UCSD. How we play in these three games will tell whether we are WWPA Championship contenders this fall.
Josh Stedman was a first-team All-WWPA pick last season and is off to a great start to this year. Can you tell us what makes him the top-notch player that he is?
Josh loves to play water polo and pushes himself daily to play at a high level. He came out of high school with his offensive skills way ahead of his defensive skills and understanding. He’s worked hard to become a complete player. His defensive impact on games has greatly increased this season without a reduction in his offensive production. He’s a fun player to watch and coach.
Cruz Smithson was also All-WWPA in 2011 and is playing well for your team this season. What are his strongest attributes?
Cruz is arguably our smartest and most skilled offensive player. His ability to post up or handle the ball on the perimeter make a great offensive combination. But it’s not just that he is our most effective post up player and one of our best perimeter shooters, more importantly, he seems to find ways to score when we most need a goal.
Mike Fish recently won WWPA Player of the Week honors and has already amassed a large amount of saves. Can you tell us what he brings between the pipes?
Chalking up a lot of saves is a “glass half full or half empty” situation. Fish has kept us in games with big saves, but we need to improve our defense and shot blocking in front of him. Fish has so many saves because we’ve let too many balls get to him. Fish started for us his entire sophomore season before backing up All-WWPA tournament selection Danny Harold as a junior; so Fish had a full season of starts under his belt leading into this fall. Over the last year, Fish has improved his leg strength, passing and understanding how to run a defense and anticipate offenses. Being able to study and learn as a back-up has been good for Fish’s development.
I know Service Academies are similar to a Harvard or Princeton in the recruiting challenges they face. Can you tell us a little about that?
Like Harvard, Air Force is one of the most highly selective and prestigious universities in the nation. So the number of college level players that can meet admissions requirements is relatively small. The sticker price is much better at Air Force, so that is a plus, but when you add the requirement to be a U.S. citizen and willingness to serve their nation in the Air Force, the pool of candidates is further reduced. But for patriotic young men looking for a challenging and fulfilling student-athlete experience, the educational and career opportunities at Air Force are unmatched. Without the luxury of athletic scholarships, foreign athletes, red-shirts (all cadets must complete one hundred and forty-seven semester hours in eight consecutive semesters), or JC transfers, Air Force cannot provide an NCAA Championship experience. Instead we offer unmatched balance – the chance to play a Top-15 west coast water polo schedule, study at a Top-10 academic university with follow-on graduate school opportunities, immerse in a nationally recognized character and leadership development program, and enjoy a wide variety of challenging and fulfilling career opportunities while serving your nation. What we might lack in individual talent, we make up with team camaraderie, commitment, and brotherhood. As you might imagine, for those looking to share a more balanced student-athlete experience, Air Force is a great locker room to be a part of.
With that our interview ended. Keep a close eye on Air Force as they have the potential to make this season a special one. I think the Falcons are right there with UC San Diego and Loyola Marymount in the WWPA. It would not surprise me if Air Force finds its way into the WWPA Championship game as this is as deep and strong as I have seen an Air Force team in the past five to ten years. Air Force is a squad that you want to succeed as well as we are all indebted to people like these young men who have made the decision to serve our country.