The biggest highlight of writing this monthly column is the opportunity to speak with coaches and in some cases living legends. This month's interview was with the latter as I am honored to have talked Triton water polo with one of our game's greats in UCSD's Denny Harper.
Quick trivia question. Prior to last year's appearance by Pacific in the NCAA title game, who was the last non "big four" school to play for an NCAA Championship. If you guessed UCSD in 2000, you are correct. The Tritons are once again fully capable of making another deep NCAA run with a deep pool of talent returning. If they find their way to NCAAs, they have one of the most accomplished coaches one will ever find to lead them. In his thirty-four seasons, Denny Harper has won 585 games, led sixteen WWPA Champions and has made twelve NCAA appearances. I sat down with Coach Harper to discuss his squad and below is our interview.
1. UCSD is once again a favorite in the WWPA and looks primed to make another NCAA appearance. What do your Tritons have to do to get back to NCAAs this fall?
We must become increasingly better each week and be prepared to make the adjustments required to compete consistently at a high level. We also now realize it isn't just enough to win another conference championship. Even though we lost last season, the experience of playing against a challenging opponent in St. Francis in the first ever play-in game for the NCAA Final Four has been beneficial for us. Combine that experience with a great off-season of preparation; which included playing in the Fisher Cup, the US Open, and the championship game of the 46th annual Hawaiian Invitational, has helped this group be better equipped to do what is necessary to get to the NCAA Final Four.
2. Your team has a ton of firepower returning and that includes 2013 All-Americans Joe Dietrich and David Higginson. What are you expecting from them this fall?
David is on the elite list of being a two-time team captain who has started every game since becoming a Triton. He is able to lean on the experience of starting three straight WWPA conference championship games, allowing him to be unfazed in any scenario in the pool. Joe Dietrich, who has started since his sophomore year, is a phenomenal defender at the center position who provides consistent offense in the front court. His versatility has been a vital asset to our ball club during his time here at UCSD. While neither of these players were highly recruited, both have evolved into premier players within our conference and are poised for outstanding seasons at the national level. There is an expectation that our players mature into men during their time at UC San Diego and because of this, the mentoring of younger players in our program is exceptional. Both David and Joe are incredibly smart men. They understand the importance of continuing to develop their own individual game, while helping to improve those who are the future of our program.
3. Your All-American goalie Cameron Ravanbach is also returning. Can you tell us about his presence for your team between the pipes?
I firmly believe Cameron is one of the best goaltenders in the nation. It is surprising for some, because he was not on anyone's recruiting radar. As a local kid from La Jolla he was given an opportunity to attend a prestigious engineering program, while continuing his athletic career. We have a long history of playing young goalies, allowing them the opportunity to grow and make the goal their home for 3-4 years. Due to his athleticism and his waterman skills, Cameron had a meteoric rise and ended up starting for us as a sophomore. He has been a stabilizing force for this team, joining David as a two-time team captain. Cameron's ability to step up on a big stage is exemplary and he showed that last season at Stanford. Our conference has had great parity over the years, so it will always be an incredible challenge to win the conference tournament in November. If we are fortunate enough to qualify for the NCAA championships again, the national stage is definitely where I would like to see Cameron finish his collegiate career.
4. One interesting name coming back this fall is 2012 All-American and Division II Player of the Year Josh Stiling. Last season, one of the key ingredients to Pacific's run was the return of key impact players off a redshirt. Do you see Stiling being a huge piece of the puzzle for you in getting back to NCAAs?
The answer to that is, obviously, yes. I truly believe Josh is one of the premier players in the nation, one of the few capable of taking over a water polo game. To be clear, he redshirted off of the back of a phenomenal junior season because he wasn't ready to be done playing water polo at UC San Diego. He wanted to continue to improve his all-around game to become a more complete player. He is way ahead of where he finished his junior year. His growth as a player is apparent in his understanding with his teammates. Josh knows how successful we can be as a team when he is making others better. His athleticism is evident, but what is so striking is how incredibly humble of an individual he is. He will go down as one of the most coachable players in the history of my 35 seasons as the head coach of this program. At the end of the day, the most incredible thing Josh is going to accomplish will be earning a world class degree in the field chemical engineering from UCSD, allowing him to go on to do remarkable things with his future
5. I know we have spoken about this before, but I have always been amazed with how UCSD has been able to perennially be a top ten program with some of the challenges you face. Can you share some of those with our community?
All programs face challenges and have obstacles to overcome in order to achieve success. First and foremost, UC San Diego is an incredibly difficult university for student-athletes to be admitted to. We have admission standards much closer to the Ivy League than the UC system. Secondly, we have never been able to offer athletic scholarships to prospective student-athletes. UCSD was originally a DIII university with no athletic aid before moving to DII in the 2000's, allowing for partial athletic aid. At that time the university created a structured model for scholarships, allowing for every student-athlete who participated in intercollegiate athletics to receive $500. We are hopeful to be moving towards more traditional scholarships in the near future, but that has been the format we have been under until just this year. We are unable to rely on foreign talent, instead we focus on continuing to develop successful, overachieving student-athletes who are dedicated to excelling in the classroom as well as in the pool. While we may not have the fiscal power of some of our rivals, UCSD has some remarkable factors which attract talented student-athletes. The facilities at Canyonview Aquatic Center are as good as anywhere in the nation, sans Stanford. Because we don't have a football team and we are the only men's water polo program in San Diego, the popularity on campus is unprecedented. That brings me to location. La Jolla is an absolutely beautiful place to attend school and the majority of our alumni ultimately decide to stay here permanently. The support from our alumni is unmatched anywhere, especially considering they are the most active group in the nation still playing together. Most importantly, the education is the real score. UC San Diego is the 7th ranked public institution in the nation (US News & World Report) and ranked in the top 15 universities in the world in many national and international publications. It was recently brought to my attention, that after over 34 years of coaching the men's program we have a graduation rate of 99%. That statistic alone, makes coaching this team mean so much more than just the wins and losses accumulated in the pool.
A great story and an outstanding program. I look forward to watching UCSD compete this season as they are returning a vintage squad that should make an impact in the WWPA and stands a great chance of booking a return trip to NCAAs.