In June, James Graham was named Head Coach of the women’s squad at the University of Pacific as a result of the success he has had on the men’s side. That success looks like it will be spilling over as it took only six months for him to garner the program’s biggest win in three seasons. In the campaign’s second weekend, the Tigers took down WWPA favorite and eighth-ranked Loyola Marymount and established themselves as a Big West contender. That victory is just one part of the six game winning streak the Tigers are currently riding. That streak also includes a win over perennial CWPA contender Hartwick.
The job that James Graham has done since arriving at Pacific in the spring of 2008 to coach their men’s squad is nothing short of remarkable. Pacific finished sixth in the national polls this season and will enter next fall as an NCAA title contender as they return every significant contributor along with a couple key redshirts. In 2010, Graham led Pacific to its highest national ranking since 1995 when they rose to fourth in the national polls. Their sterling performance in that campaign led to Graham being awarded the Monte Nitzkowski Award from USA Water Polo. Prior to arriving at Pacific, Graham coached Santa Rosa Junior College to a third place finish at the California State Championships in 2007. I caught up with Coach Graham to discuss his program and below is our interview.
In just your fourth game as women's coach, you piloted the Tigers to their first win over a top ten team since 2010. Can you tell us about the LMU game and how you instilled confidence in this group that made them believe they could play with a team that was ranked eighth in the country?
The LMU game was a big test for us and we knew that we had our work cut out for us. We were lucky to have a chance to scout them during the first day and we had a game plan set up that the team believed in. Plus we had just finished playing CAL and UCLA, so we had already played two of the best teams in the nation. This took the stress off because we had already been tested and now it was just about putting together four good quarters.
Last season Pacific lost eleven of its last thirteen games including contests against teams that one would think Pacific should have been able to defeat in Wagner, Cal State Bakersfield and Colorado State. Can you tell us a little about the challenge that you faced and compare it to the rebuilding job you had to do on the men's side?
Well first of all I think that all three of those teams are great programs and will be tough games any time we match up with them this year. But I do have the benefit of rebuilding the men's team which has been a great asset during this process. So it has been a smoother process for a few reasons. First is that I have a great staff in place now with Zac Koerner, Kendra Klein and Emily Schmit. Having three assistants is a huge advantage that I did not have when I took over the men's program. Second, we have developed a model that works well for Pacific on the men's side and we can use that as a place to start with the women. Third we have been evolving over the last five years and I believe that we have finally got to place where our style of play is paying dividends.
Once again, you assumed a head coaching role without the benefit of having a full recruiting season. At least when you took over the men, you were able to scramble and nab guys like Joey Gullikson and Lance Morrison that you coached at Santa Rosa JC. Can you tell us if your recruiting strategy on the women's side will be similar to the men in terms of going overseas and nabbing a couple of cornerstones for the program?
Yes, we will have a very similar recruiting philosophy with both programs. I do think it is important to have a very diverse roster which includes great out of state players, California players, junior college players and international players. Everyone has a role on our team and we are looking for the right players for our program no matter where they are from.
Michele Relton had a big opening weekend for you in the cage and earned Big West Player of the Week. Can you tell us a little about her and what makes her the outstanding keeper that she is?
Michele has everything you would expect in a great player. She is hard working, dedicated, talented and unselfish. She has had a great start but we are excited because she has another level that no one has seen. She already has the school record for career saves and I know she will be one of the best goalies in the Big West by the time she graduates.
Brydie Pye has left the gate fast scoring eleven goals to start the season including a pair in your win over LMU. Can you tell us about her and why she is off to a great start?
Brydie has one of the best shots out there and is very calm under pressure. She is willing to challenge goalies with a variety of shots and placement. I expect her to become a force in the Big West over the next few years.
With that our interview ended. When James Graham was named as the head Women’s Coach I stated on “Talking Water Polo at the Planet”, that while he was hired too late to be able to put together a formidable recruiting class that I believe Pacific will be vastly improved by virtue of his presence. Any team coached by James Graham is going to compete hard, play defense and be organized on offense. Quite simply, they are going to take on the personality of their coach. I know UC-Irvine and San Diego State are the favorites in the Big West, but I am not counting out the Tigers.