It may appear to some that play on both coasts is what drives American water polo; in fact the Midwest is as important a region as any to the sport’s growth. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, Will Hart, head coach for the Pioneer High School girls’ and boys’ teams, oversees a successful program that has captured a total of six state titles over 15 years. Pioneer has sent numerous players to varsity polo programs, including Arizona State, Brown, Harvard, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Princeton and Purdue. Hart’s most prominent graduate to date is Alison Gregorka, who attended Stanford then played on Team USA’s silver-medal winning squad at the 2008 London Olympics.

A native of Ann Arbor, Hart led the Pioneers to the 2016 girls’ water polo state championship, adding to previous titles in 2002, 2003 and 2009 for the girls and 2002 and 2011 for the boys.

Coach Hart spoke with New York City-based water polo journalist Michael Randazzo about the challenges of Michigan’s competitive East Region District, motivating high school athletes, how his coaching style has evolved and life lessons learned during two decades in the sport.

Michael Randazzo: How did you first get involved with water polo?

Will Hart: I was born and raised in Ann Arbor and went to Pioneer, where I swam and played polo. My first ever glimpse of it was during summer swimming. One of the lifeguards had a water polo ball out and I had never seen one before. I must have been in sixth or seventh grade and was like: “What is that?!”

Back in the mid-Eighties there was no youth program [in Ann Arbor], there was nothing. My sophomore year was the first time I was ever in a position to play polo and that was great.

From 10th grade on I’ve been fascinated by it. I swam at Eastern Michigan and had a great time with that. I always tell kids I would have played polo in college if I was better at it. But I was a better swimmer.

Randazzo: How did Ann Arbor become a hotbed of youth polo?

Hart: It was in the Nineties that it really started to take off. Candice Russell, who started an age-group program, was the driving force to get women’s water polo started in Michigan. The 2008 Olympics were huge here for water polo. You had Betsey [Armstrong] as the goalie. Allison [Gregorka] — who went to Pioneer — was also a starter, she was the center defender.

I look back [at that time]; it’s impressive to have two players from the same town outside of California [on the Olympic squad].

You have to go out to California, get on one of those big clubs, go to JOs [Junior Olympics], get that training, and get noticed by those coaches. JOs for the last ten years has transformed into a showcase. 2001 is when [Ann Arbor] hosted JOs. It wasn’t as big as it is now, with multi-level brackets. And it’s really done well. It needs to be out in California because nobody else has that many pools in a small area.

If you really want to build it, you’ve got to build the youth program. And it’s great [that there’s] the NCAAs and some other things, or maybe [Olympians will] come to a scrimmage. That doesn’t mean anything if you look at all the sports that are still growing, and especially if you’re just talking high school, whether it’s girls or boys. Boys have football. Which the boys I coach compete with. I’ll see parents as they’re walking by and they’ll look and say: “Water polo! You have to wear a suit. Go over here and do something tough and wear a football outfit.”

I want to lay down the equipment; here’s a speedo, here’s a cap. That’s all you get. Maybe you can wear a mouth guard if you want to. Go throw on all the equipment over there that you have to be a man in. Which one takes more guts as a highs school kid — male or female — to put on? A full-length jersey which can hide your figure, [or] a water polo suit, [where] you’re exposed?

Everything about you is out there. I think a lot of people overlook that about kids, about wanting to be out there. But it’s that youth thing where you’re getting kids exposed in these programs — peewee, basically elementary on — that’s where you get them.

It’s slowly moving that way but you don’t have that base, where you can look and say: “My neighbor did that.” Or, “My older brother did that and now I’m going to start it ‘cause I really like it.”

At Pioneer I try and do that. We have managers, some who are sixth graders. And they’re in the water with the high school team. They’re usually brothers or sisters of [players on the team].

The whole idea is to get them exposed, have fun and maybe go home and tell a friend: “You know this water polo thing is actually pretty cool.”

Randazzo: How is it that Pioneer competes for state titles year after year?

Hart: I think it’s that mix you’re looking for, that tradition, which has always been there. Pioneer has had a good reputation in aquatics. It started with Denny Hill creating an incredible swim program. He started water polo programs to get those kids in the water, building [them] up for swim season.

What we’ve had is good coaches and stability, especially at the high school level. Since 1987 there’s been only two head coaches for the boy’s program. And I’ve done the last 15 years for the girls.

I don’t stress winning state titles. I think when I first started out I knew exactly how many wins and losses I had. I knew what the percentages were. Now I couldn’t tell you how many games I’ve coached, how many games I’ve won.

Those aren’t the important things that I’ve learned or where I want to keep going. Building teamwork, building things that these kids are going to take out of the program. That takes a while.

That’s one of the things I love about our pool when you walk in. You only see state title banners on the walls. There are no individual All-American plaques.

By design it’s really about making sure — where so many things are individualized now — it’s about where we’re going to finish as a team. Of course  [it’s about] having fun. You gotta have fun.

Randazzo: What about your approach is important to maintaining your program’s success?

Hart: I try to be consistent but each team is different. And you can’t have the same system going from year to year. You have the same overriding philosophy: you work towards this, you get better throughout the year. But I find almost every year it changes on how you get there. High school? You never know who’s walking through the door. You don’t know what quality you’re going to get. Maybe the team’s all coming in in shape — you don’t have to work on conditioning. You can work on all these other things.

Sometimes people overlook system coaches. But if you get into the details they’re really changing a lot that they’re doing, year, by year, by year. Maybe the results are — ending up near the top, always in contention. But being there, a long time, hard work, showing your values, leading by example no matter if it’s good, bad.

You make a mistake, you tell the kids. First day of practice I always tell the kids: “You’re going to make mistakes. I’m going to make mistakes. And it’s not always simple like forgetting your name. I could call time-out at the wrong time. I could not put in the right kid. I can make mistakes in coaching. We’ve all got to learn from them and prepare so that by the end of the season we’re firing on all cylinders.

Randazzo: And it’s not always about winning…

Hart: Getting kids to understand that not every game matters, and breaking it down to: one play at a time, one quarter at a time; getting kids to focus on that is one of my primary goals. Because once they start forgetting about that big picture — “Oh we might lose the game!” — and just worry about this play and do what you have to do.

And getting kids to understand that you don’t have to score a goal to help the team win. What if you made a pass? Or if you just blocked the defender from getting the ball so your teammate can get it? What if you just made an incredible play that’s never going to be really known on the stat sheet, only by someone who understands water polo? You just played such great defense, you may not have had many steals, you may not have had a shot on goal, but you shut down their best player. You may not even make a stat column.

Water polo is all about positioning, and all I’ve been coaching is for kids to drop back into position to threaten that there’s a double hole set so that they don’t pass it in. But where does that appear on the stat sheet?

Randazzo: How have you changed as a coach?

Hart: I had to learn you can’t harp on them for missing a shot. If we’ve got someone wide open and the goalie made a great save or the defender made a field block, well that’s a great play by them. And if it’s something like mechanics or fundamentals or they’re staring to choke, that’s something to work on.

That’s the whole part of being a coach: they notice everything. I’m laughing inside sometimes when they tell me: “We notice sometimes that when you drink water you swish it in your mouth to your left and then to your right before you swallow it.”

That was the key: to watch the non-verbal cues. Don’t give that “angry face” look every time they make a mistake. Be there encouraging or have the “stale face” [where] you have no emotions going.

Having that consistency where kids don’t feel threatened, don’t feel they have to be a superstar. They just have to be able to step up in that moment. That’s a really huge part of our program.

Randazzo: How important is it for your program to work with top athletes?

Hart: I was lucky enough to coach Alison Gregorka in her last two years [at Pioneer]. That’s when I first started out. She was unbelievable. You talk about someone who just changed the dynamic of the game as soon as she got in the water. She was on a team where everyone except the goalie was faster than her. She started, and everyone else was like a state champ in the water for swimming.

When I first started out I had two really incredible years with really fast teams — amazing teams — and then you throw in the best field player outside of California and all the sudden it’s like: wow, what can you do?

That second year when Allison was a senior we went undefeated. No game was close. I felt almost like a bus driver. I only kept games close because a kept some starters home. Because I wanted to build the bench.

I wouldn’t be surprised maybe this upcoming year if maybe I have some coaches stop in and watch Brianna Coury. Almost six foot, strong, fast. Can play set, can play center, counter attack. Loves to play defense. When you walk in she’s the stereotypical water polo player.

The rest of the time I just have great student athletes. And they’re never going on to DI level. That’s just not going to happen. But, they have fun playing the game, you’ve just got to keep that fun, they can go out and play club. I remember years ago I was at a women’s club game [at the University of Michigan], and they notice me. All of the sudden at the start of one of the quarters, they made sure I was paying attention, and all seven players were former players of mine. That’s pretty cool.

And it comes in cycles. You’re going to have a bunch where they all want to play club, they all want to stay involved.

One of my accomplishments that I’ll look back at is: one year, with one guys’ team, all of the sudden I was texted or emailed at the time — I’m not sure how big Twitter was then — five of my guys were named captains in college.

You want to ask how my program’s doing? There you go. They’re having fun, they’re still playing, they’re involved and they’re leaders.

As we get older, state title — cool and all — but the lessons we should be teaching them aren’t about winning the games. It’s about how you prepare, how you get ready, how you should win those games. Sometimes you’re going to run into an opponent who’s hot and sometimes you aren’t going to win. You can’t change some of those factors.

Randazzo: What makes coaching girls distinct? Are there techniques / training that you believe are best suited for girls as opposed to boys?

Hart: The biggest lesson I try to teach them all at the same time — whether they’re guys or girls — is that it’s hard when you’re growing up that some people, no matter how they’re delivering it, you have to understand the message and not how it’s delivered.

I teach them that they’re going to run into — whether it’s bosses, coaches, whomever — if they’re yelling, you better block that out. All you need to absorb is the message.

There’s [also] this shift where you have to be overly positive at times. When you’re doing a team sport, sometimes it can be very easy to say: “You screwed up. You cost everyone else.”

I try to only get upset when [there’s] lack of effort. If they got beat by some better player, you can’t do anything about that. But if I see they’re loafing, they’re not trying hard, they’re going through the motions, I get upset. The kids will tell me: “You’ve got these veins that pop out!”

When it comes down to the differences [between boys and girls] I think it’s just the way you deliver it. Each team can be different. I have had guy teams where I could just yell, I could scream. I could even swear. That’s how they learned. I’ve had other guy teams where I had to sit down, I had to explain it, I had to draw everything out, and that’s how they learned. If I were to dare yell at them, that’s it. They would check out.

In general what you have with the girls, you have more of the sitting down, explaining things — but you also have individuals who you have to treat differently on the team. Some of them need that yelling, getting in the face — especially if they want to go on to the next level. I know what a lot of college coaches can be like. They’re gonna yell, they’re going to be in the moment; they’re going to be telling them exactly what they have to do. And if you can’t disassociate the yelling and screaming and just absorb the message, you’re going to be in trouble.

Sometimes I’ll tell my assistant coaches: this individual or this group, I’m going to have to come down hard on today. They’ve screwed around too much, they’re not getting this — I’m coming down like a hammer. I warn my assistant: they’re going to come to you. They’re going to be upset. You have to listen to everything — you don’t have to tell me everything — but you need to have their back.

As a coach I would love to be the guy who yells at you then picks you up. But I can’t be both. I have to be the person who says: “No.” And the only way you make things better is by getting it right. And I can’t help you get up — you have to do that by yourself.

To me that also goes back to the biggest joy of coaching at the high school level. When you see someone where it clicks. All the sudden — you can see it in their eyes — they get it.

Those are the moments I live for.

Randazzo: What is most memorable about your tenure at Pioneer?

Hart: I tell people, the best moment I ever had as a coach was when Will Anderson scored a goal against Dexter. He is an autistic kid who was in his shell, who didn’t remember people’s names when we started. If you look at him, you wouldn’t realize that.

He could barely swim when he started. And I had to cherry-pick him to get him a goal. He wasn’t going to get a goal in set-up offense because he couldn’t move fast enough. If he knew what to do… but that wasn’t going to happen.

Now I hate cherry picking. But I realized some things are more important. Everyone on the team knew they had to play better defense. Our goalie knew he had to throw it down the pool and, the first time Will gets it, he catches it perfectly up out of the water. I mean it could be like a training video. He brings it around to cradle it and… touches it with two hands.

And you wonder: are you ever going to have this happen again?

We’re fighting and we’re holding Dexter off the scoreboard; our goalie gets it and throws it down the pool. Will does it perfectly; catches it, gets up and just rips it upper corner of the goal.

His first goal ever [voice cracking]. I look up [in the stands]; his dad’s in tears.

I ran into one of my players much later: “You know, Dexter still has that score sheet in their pool office — the one where Will scored.”

I said: “Just make sure it stays there.”

That was where I learned that you can win state titles, you can lose them, you can have years where you don’t make states, but a process changed [Will’s] life. It hit home there that being part of a team — healing included — will give you much more than winning or losing.

All photos courtesy Ann Arbor Pioneer Water Polo