In his 26 years as UCSD water polo coach, Denny Harper has established one of the top programs in the country. In 2005, UCSD won a school record 24 times. With multiple victories against Division I schools in Long Beach State , UC Davis, Loyola Marymount, UC Irvine, Saint Francis and a total of 19 victories against ranked opponents, UCSD climbed as high as No. 5 in the national polls and finished the season with a No. 10 national ranking. In 2004 the Tritons had several young players gain valuable experience with only one graduating senior. While the Tritons fell short in their quest for their 14th Western Water Polo Association title, they had several wins over division I powers including Long Beach State , UC Davis, Loyola Marymount and UC Santa Barbara. Harper was named the 2004 CWPA division II Coach of the Year after leading the Tritons to their third 20 win season in the past five years. It was the second Coach of the Year (2000, 2004) honor at the division II level for Harper. One of several highlights occurred in 2000, when the Tritons defeated USC, 9-8, in a national semifinal in Malibu to become the first non-Division I team to play in the NCAA Men’s Water Polo Championship Game. The Tritons have advanced to the NCAA Tournament in nine of the past 13 seasons, finishing second for the first time ever in 2000, third in 1995 and 1998, fourth in 1999 and 2002 and sixth three times. The 2002 squad went 19-13 and earned its ninth NCAA berth by winning its 13th WWPA title at home inside Canyonview Pool. In 1995, Harper’s Tritons became the first Division III team to advance to the NCAA Water Polo Final Four, repeating the feat in 1998 and at Canyonview in 1999. Under Harper’s direction, UCSD has dominated the Western Water Polo Association since the league began sponsoring championships in 1981. The Tritons have never finished lower than third in the conference, and in 24 seasons have captured 13 titles and eight runner-up trophies. Harper has been honored as WWPA Coach of the Year 14 times, including in 2002. UCSD has been consistently ranked among the top 12 teams in the NCAA rankings, including a fifth-place rank in 2000, the highest in UCSD history. Harper was recognized three times as Division III Coach of the Year, and in UCSD’s first year of Division II membership in 2000, he earned Division I and Division II Coach of the Year awards. He has a career record of 409-317-4. Harper concluded an outstanding tenure as coach of the UCSD women’s water polo team in 1999, winning five USA Water Polo crowns, one national runner-up effort and two national third-place trophies. He has also coached the highly-successful Sunset San Diego club teams, leading the men’s team to three Indoor National Championships and the Sunset women’s team to eight national titles. The coach also led the UCSD men into the Guinness Book of Records when his squad played 26 continuous hours of water polo on April 7-8, 1989 . Harper, a 1978 graduate of San Diego State University , began coaching at Rancho Alamitos and Indio High Schools , and at San Diego State before coming to UC San Diego.
Entering her ninth season at the helm of San Diego State water polo, Carin Crawford continues on her mission to establish the Aztecs as a top contender in women's collegiate water polo. In each of her eight years at San Diego State, Crawford has guided the Aztecs to a top-11 national finish. During her tenure, the Aztecs have accumulated 14 All-America awards and all-MPSF honors 18 times. In addition, her players have earned 30 all-MPSF academic selections and 28 AWPCA all-academic awards. Prior to water polo becoming an NCAA championship sport in 2001, the Aztecs, under Crawford, advanced to the National Collegiate Water Polo Championship in her first two seasons in 1999 and 2000 and finished fifth and sixth, respectively. In 2001, Crawford's Aztec team took second place at the postseason National Collegiate Select Tournament. Crawford's coaching and playing experience has provided the foundation upon which she has built the Aztec women's water polo program. Prior to her arrival on Montezuma Mesa, Crawford served as head coach of the San Diego Mesa College women's water polo team from 1996-98 and guided the team to a berth in the 1996 SoCal championship while coaching two players to All-America honors during her two seasons there. As coach of the Sunset San Diego Girls water polo club, Crawford assisted in building one of the premier club programs in the nation. The Sunset Girls were perennial medalists in every age group at the National Junior Olympics Water Polo Tournament from 1996-98. As a player for the Sunset Senior Women's team, Crawford was a four-time All-American, helping her team win nine Senior National Championship titles. While a member of the United States National Team from 1989 to 1992, Crawford participated in four U.S. Olympic Festivals, earning two gold medals, a silver and a bronze. Through her participation on the national team, she traveled to Hungary, Holland, Australia and New Zealand, accumulating international playing experience and bringing that to San Diego State. During her collegiate career, Crawford was a co-captain for the UC San Diego Tritons and received All-America honors in 1988 and '89. She graduated cum laude in 1989 and returned to earn her master's degree in U.S. history in 1992 while competing on the U.S. National Team. As a former athlete representative to USA Water Polo, Crawford has worked at the grassroots level to raise the status of women's water polo to an Olympic and NCAA championship sport. Her contribution to the sport paid off when women's water polo was included in the 2000 Olympics and was recognized as an NCAA championship sport in 2001. A native of Albuquerque, N.M., Crawford attended Valley High School. She enjoys surfing, gardening and spending time with her husband, Jack, and two sons, Jackson and Shane. The family resides in San Diego.
Water Polo Planet’s “Lest We Forget” series is the first attempt to collect the histories of the early pioneers of women’s water polo. My coach and mentor, Denny Harper made the honor roll, so I took the opportunity to sit down with him over a couple of cold beverages and ask him about the early days of his involvement in coaching women’s water polo.
I was impressed with Denny’s ability to recall details, as I pressed him for names, dates and places. Despite the loss of many brain cells on his journey to the women’s water polo hall of fame, Denny’s recollections help to complete the fledgling history of the early days of the sport.
In recent history, over the last ten years, Denny Harper is best known for his accomplishments at the helm of the UCSD men's program, including a string of NCAA tournament appearances and an NCAA national runner-up finish in 2000. Harper's most lasting legacy as a coach however can arguably be for his role in the development of women's water polo. Unlike many coaches who start coaching boys’ water polo and eventually move to the girls’ side, Denny Harper started his coaching career with high school girls.
During his senior year at Garden Grove High School (1973) a few of his friends on the girls’ swim team asked Denny help them get organized and start a water polo team. With the help of the school administration, Denny scheduled 5-6 games, games played around the Los Angeles area, most notably Whittier high school. With a natural propensity to lead, organize and take charge, Denny quite simply enjoyed his first coaching stint. It was fun, it was social, and he was helping his friends. This marked the start of 20+ year involvement in girls and women’s water polo.
In the Fall of 1973, Denny’s embarked on his own collegiate water polo career at Santa Barbara City College. Denny’s father, who worked in the aerospace industry, had been laid of work at McDonnell Douglass in Long Beach, so community college was the only option. At Santa Barbara City College, Denny met lifelong friends and water polo players Russ Hafferkamp, Candi Nagel and Jill Murray, all of whom eventually transferred to San Diego State University, where Denny’s was instrumental in taking the fledgling women’s water polo club team and turning it into a national power house.
With friends at SDSU, Harper was again pressed into duty to coach the women's water polo club during his own playing career. As a Recreation Management major, Denny was able to enlist the support of the Sports Club Office at SDSU, which was under the leadership of Laurel Dean. With players who wanted leadership and coaching, Harper secured pool time and a budget of $75.00 and coached the SDSU women’s water polo club for the next two years.
During his time at SDSU, Harper was resourceful enough to work with his major advisor to earn college credit for helping to develop and organize the sport of women's water polo. Denny completed a 15 page research paper that was a essentially a detailed handbook for what it takes to run a national women's water polo tournament, develop a budget, and select the all-tournament teams. In the technological dark ages, before FAX machines and computers, the work was quite involved. Denny and the players, using the resources at SDSU, would stay up all night and over a few beers, hand stenciling tournament t-shirts to be sold at the event to cover the costs. These experiences eventually helped Denny to earn a BA in Recreation Management from SDSU (1976) and some memorable experiences and friendships coaching women's water polo.
Denny’s first coaching job started in the Fall of 1978 when he joined forces with Tim McElrath to coach the Indio High School water polo team. Two seniors of note on that team were Guy Baker and Laura Laughlin (Baker). Laura Laughlin was the only girl on the team, but in Harper’s words, was “one of the best water polo players he had ever seen, boy or girl.” Laura was the star of the JV team, and first off the bench for the boys varsity on a team that compiled a 19-4 record, with all four losses by one goal, and 3 out of the 4 losses to a Riverside Poly team coached by Riverside area legend, Dave Almquist.
In 1979 Denny came back to the San Diego area and resumed coaching the SDSU women’s club team from 1979-1982. During this time, Harper was exposed to the many strong clubs in the Long Beach/Los Angeles area. Denny made the following statements that help to connect the dots to the notable clubs, coaches and athletes of these early years of women’s water polo.
The commerce teams were especially strong, led by Bobby Contreras, notable athletes were Margo Miranda and Anabel Baragon.
Coach Kelly Kemp led the purple-people eater team from Long Beach Wilson, whose star athletes were Maureen O’Toole, Simone LaPay, and the Cox sisters, Ruth and Laura.
The FAST (Fullerton Area Swim Team) coached by Stan Sprage was the team that set the standard by which we all measured ourselves against. Their team really opened my eyes about the potential for women’s water polo athletes. They were good, mean, fast and feminine. Their key players were Ryan Gulasa, Marcia McKewan, Karen Cousins, Vicky Barker and Claudia O’Brien.
When all these athletes went off to college they helped to develop club teams at the colleges and universities they attended:
UC Santa Barbara had Ruth and Laura Cox, Marla Smith, Dion Dickerson (Grey), Sally Thomas.
UC Davis, first with Rick West then Jamie Wright at the helm, had Cyndi Jones, Nancy Corstorphine, and Cathy Carr (West).
Slippery Rock was THE team on the east coast. They were the most organized and most competitive team. Led by head coach Richard “Doc” Hunkler, key players were Lynn Comer and Leslie Entwhistle
In San Diego, the SDSU/ UCSD rivalry was in its infancy. UCSD was led by Vicky Barker and Claudia O’Brien, while SDSU’s core team included Toria Schlemmer, Barb Bilz, Jill Murray and Candi Nagel.
While some names and dates escaped him, and the list will have to be completed by those who do recall, Denny clearly remembered his win/loss record at SDSU, an impressive 130-18.
Denny’s first paid coaching position was on the men’s side at UC San Diego in 1980. When the players on the UCSD men’s’ team learned that their newly hired coach was 24 years old and that his only experience beyond a season of boys water polo at Indio High School was coaching “chicks” at SDSU, the players were concerned. This initial lack of confidence only brought out Denny’s competitive nature, and in their first workout Denny “kicked their asses” with a three hour beach workout that started with a swim around the Mission Beach Jetty, south along shore to the Pacific Beach Pier and a run along the beach back to the starting point.
The tradition of beach workouts to start off the season is one that Denny continues to this day, and is one that I have carried over into an annual ritual as head coach at SDSU.
During first two years as head coach of the UCSD men, from 1980-1982, Denny did double duty as the SDSU women’s coach, as he was unable to make a break from the friendships and camaraderie he developed while coaching the women’s club at San Diego State.
In 1983, Denny took over the reins of the UCSD women’s water polo program, as it made the transition from club to varsity. UCSD was way out in front of the curve in sponsoring women’s water polo as a varsity sport, as the only other varsity programs in the nation at the time were Harvard University and Slippery Rock University.
Denny coached the UCSD women to five USA Collegiate National Championships, and was second once and third twice. In 1979, he developed the Sunset Water Polo Club and coached the women's side to eight USA Water Polo national championships from 1990-1997. This is the era in which I played for Denny, along with my teammates who continue to be my closest friends.
I asked Denny how he responds to criticism from those who were not involved in the early era of women’s water polo who say that the level of play back then was weak compared to what it is now. As a coach who won what is arguably the equivalent of five NCAA championships in women's water polo, how do you answer the detractors who argue that the field was less competitive, that the level of play was inferior?
I also asked Denny to talk about why he was motivated to coach women's water polo in this early era. Let’s face it: there was no money, no prestige, and no path to bigger and better things like the Olympics or NCAA championships. What motivated you? Who were your role models from these early days?
No doubt, going to NCAA varsity status created more depth and parity in women’s collegiate water polo. It was an added boost that helped the development of the sport, however, back in those days, the top 2 teams, and occasionally the top 3-4 teams would all contend for an NCAA title if they were playing today.
When I coached my UCSD collegiate teams with players including Julie Swail, Jamie Dailey, Brenda Reiton, Carin Crawford, Jefi Paulsen, Kristen Larson, Toya Ellis, Leona Mason and defensive specialist Christy Parker, those teams set the bar for the modern era, and would be competitive today against the top NCAA teams.
Clearly, all of the athletes and coaches who were involved in the early days did it for the love of coaching and playing. There was a handful of good coaches, but the majority of girls water polo coaches were bad coaches. The dedicated coaches had a camaraderie that does not exist today. The increased “professionalism” of the sport has taken away from this. Jamey Wright, Rob Locke and I would play hoops between games in a tournament, and have fun talking about water polo together.
Doc Hunkler motivated me more than any other coach to win. Doc Hunkler was the most intense, competitive coach I ever played against. He was always on his game, and always looking for that competitive edge. He was fierce, intense and he, more than anyone else, always got my competitive juices flowing. Doc Hunkler brought out the best in me, and helped me take my passion for coaching to another level. Doc was also probably the only coach who was intellectually sophisticated enough to realize we were part of something special during those days.
Denny also wanted to take the opportunity to remember many of the officials who took the women’s game seriously in this era. Most of the games in the 1970s and early 1980s were called by officials who had little or no experience, and this led to Denny earning a reputation as a coach who was notorious for yelling at terrible referees. The “A” list of officials who would even consider calling women’s games was short. Two notable names who helped advance the women’s game during this early era were John Felix and Dave Alberstien. It was not until the 1986 season that Denny remembers sanctioned referees from the men’s side being assigned to women’s games.
Denny also recalled a game up at UC Davis in which John Felix, who was an imposing figure, was literally blown into the water during a windy winter game. He climbed out, sat on the deck, put his whistle back into his mouth, and made a call. Denny is pretty certain Rick West will remember this moment.
Denny also remembers helping to establish traditions in women’s water polo that have been lost in the transition from club to varsity. The first is the John Felix award, to be presented to the MVP of the collegiate national tournament. The second is the Trish McGuire award, to be presented to the Most Valuable Goalie of the collegiate season. The NCAA committee needs to look at ways to carry these traditions forward into the modern era.
To commemorate Denny Harper’s contributions to the sport of women’s water polo in San Diego, SDSU and UCSD play an annual game for a trophy named the Harper Cup, in which Denny presents the cup to the most valuable player of the game. This is our way of remembering Denny’s role in developing collegiate women’s water polo and educating our current players about the history of their sport.
While the history of women’s water polo is young, and there are many more significant names and dates that need to be recorded, with the passage of time the challenge becomes more formidable. I can say on behalf of many players like myself who had to live with the embarrassment of saying “women’s water polo is not in the Olympics, but yes, men’s is” or “no, our sport is not recognized by the NCAA” that committed coaches like Denny Harper and many others on the honor roll, gave us the motivation and inspiration to keep playing the game, simply by caring about our development as athletes. They gave to the sport of women’s water polo their best coaching energy for the love of the game and for the pure pursuit of excellence, with no promise of the chance to win Olympic medals or compete for NCAA championships. For that, I want to say thank you, you have given us so much with no expectation of getting anything in return, and that is what makes our world a better place. Happy New Year!
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