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Brooklyn-based water polo journalist Michael Randazzo sat down with McKendree University head coach Ryan Hall last weekend at the Brown University Bruno Classic to discuss leading a first-year varsity program.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A sign of an on-going national expansion of the sport, last Saturday McKendree University played its first-ever National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) varsity men’s water polo match against host/No. 14-ranked Brown University at the Bruno Classic. In a respectable outcome for the small Lebanon, Ill. school, the Bearcats dropped a 13-5 decision to the Bears, who presented the visitors with a trophy commemorating the historic moment.

For McKendree head coach Ryan Hall, it’s an initial step in what promises to be a whirlwind season filled with firsts. Hired last May from the University of Redlands after a three-year stint as an assistant coach for men’s and women’s polo, Hall is no stranger to success. The Bulldogs’ men achieved double-digits in wins all three years—culminating in an 18-15 record in 2016—while last season the Redlands women also achieved a double-digit win total. Both squads are members of the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC).

A 2008 Redlands graduate, Hall earned All-America honors and first-team All-SCIAC accolades in each of his four years with the program, was named the SCIAC Player of the Year in 2007 and sits third all-time in the Bulldogs’ record book for points (194).

Following his team’s second match—a loss to No. 15 California Baptist University by a score of 26-2—Hall spoke with water polo journalist Michael Randazzo about his team’s inaugural season, the benefits of an NCAA varsity program located close to Chicago and St. Louis, fertile regions of growth for the sport, and what the future holds for his young team competing in the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference.

Talk about the maiden voyage for McKendree men’s water polo.

Everyone’s either a sophomore or freshman. We have some guys with experience but, for the majority of us, playing games like this is a new thing. Last year was good preparation for what we can expect this year moving forward in conference and when we take these travel trips.

We have to catch up and make the most out of the time we have together. A couple of weeks of preseason was good preparation. We’re trying to get better every day, and a tournament like this against really good competition will help prepare us for the rest of our season.

Your players come from all over—California, Florida, Illinois, Missouri and Texas as well as abroad—but is there a specific geographic area that you believe provides the best fit for your team?

I came from the Northwest—I grew up in Seattle—and had an opportunity to play in California. As a coach I try to give student athletes from any geographic area or location an opportunity. I prefer players that get overlooked because of their lack of experience. Sometimes the ceiling is a lot higher for those players.

Obviously it’s a positive to have guys from California who have played more high-level games earlier in their career. Their experience will help our team. But I’d really like to focus on recruiting locally. There’s a lot of talent in the Chicago area, and St. Louis water polo is growing quite a bit.

I’m just trying to get those guys competitive experiences because geographically the competition is limited. Not everyone has the ability to travel to California or to travel to tournaments out of the area. So when they get into an environment like this, we’re trying to prepare them for what collegiately is water polo at a higher level.

You’re following in the wake—in some ways literally—of Wagner College, which last year launched a new men’s program in this very pool, also with a match against Brown. How does coming East further the goal of building a successful water polo program at McKendree? 

For a relatively unknown program it’s good to get out of our area and play these types of games. There might be a kid in high school here who’ve never heard of McKendree before. They go home and do some research and figure out that we’re a Division II program at a small, private school that offers opportunities to play against schools like Brown, Harvard and MIT.

I think it’s a challenge for our student athletes because in our conference the closest team to us is three hours away. We’re having to travel constantly on every weekend to play four or five games in two days, then return and maintain the expectation that these guys will excel in the classroom as well.

The flip side of that is as a team you come together a little bit more because you spend so much time together on the road. It’s a growing process and we’re going to learn a lot from it.

From a recruiting stand point, the more games like this we play—for me it’s important to speak to student athletes who are perhaps looking at McKendree and let them know: “Hey, we’re not going to be isolated by our position on the map. We’re going to have opportunities to play against the best teams in the country.”

The outcome right now might not be what we want it to be, but if we can get the right players in and continue to build the group that we have, it’s going to help us as a measuring stick really see where we are. If we can hang with a Brown for a couple of quarters, or compete with a Cal Baptist.

From a recruiting standpoint it’s great because when I’m talking to these kids, it isn’t limited to just our conference. We’re going to travel out of the area. We’re going to take a couple of travel trips—including a month from now in California against some of the best Division III teams in the country.

What would you say has been the most challenging aspect so far of this season? 

We’re a really young team, and [my players] have now had two coaches in the last two years [Gregg Emde resigned last spring]. They’re still figuring me out, learning my style, and I’m still getting to know them. I’ve only got to see them for less than a month. That’s an obstacle we’re going to have to overcome as we progress through the season. 

Some of the teams we play have been able to play throughout the whole summer; most of our guys separate and go home for the summer. We’re coming back for a short period of time before we have to play high level games. 

We’ll continue to improve as we practice more together, we’ll pick up on each other’s tendencies and figure out everyone’s strengths and weaknesses.

The biggest challenge is trying to get better every day. Hopefully I’m preparing them for events like this and making the most out of every opportunity we have. 

Your university and its president have made a serious commitment to aquatics. 

We have the support of our school [and] have a brand new facility, which is great. We don’t have a 50 meter pool—it’s a 30 x 25 meter, all deep. Our president, Dr. Dennis, has been pushing that for a long time. He wanted to make our swimming and water polo programs varsity sports and to do that he provided the facility to train in. We’re very fortunate to be where we are. [Our facility] is going to help us with recruiting as well as help our current players.

We have the tools and resources we need to help them get better every day.

In two weeks the Bearcats will begin play as the newest member of the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference, Western Division. What can you expect from your team in conference play this year?

We’re not worried about what other teams in our conference are doing or have done. I’ve been coaching on the West Coast for a long time so I haven’t seen a lot of these teams except for when they traveled out West and played Redlands.

For us it’s about staying the course, getting better, controlling what we can control. It would be great if we could finish in the top half of our conference and build off of that. As a new program we’re very fortunate because not only do we get to play a conference championship [November at the U.S. Naval Academy] but as of this year they’re going to have a Division II championship. It will be four teams and will be hosted at Gannon University this year.

It’s more competitive, meaningful games that we have a chance to be a part of, and for a young team that’s important for our development.

Even as you prepare for the present, what do you see as the future impact of McKendree men’s water polo? 

We have a small roster size right now—16, 17 guys on the team—so I’m hoping in the next couple of years to get closer to 30 players. That will create more competition, especially in practice. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Division II championship creates more interest from athletic directors and presidents of universities in our area to move some clubs to varsity [status]. There’s a lot of intercollegiate club water polo in our area and the Division II championship, if it goes well, could generate the kind of interest that could help push some tams towards varsity. 

Having Austin College move to Division III is going to be big. It’s going to add another potential opponent for us that’s not on either coasts.

For McKendree, we’re trying to get as much exposure as possible to the university and our program. In the next year or two I’d like to invite some of the teams here now [at the Bruno Classic] to our pool and run a two-day tournament. That will bring more exposure to McKendree, helps put us on the map.

The sport is in a good place right now. Obviously it would be great to add more teams, but the addition of our program, the possibility of Austin College [going varsity], Wagner, La Salle University going varsity—we’re moving in the right direction.

Hopefully we can add a few [teams] closer to us so we can get some more local competition.

Five years from now I hope we’re competing for conference championships and are able to be more competitive in these games against top DI programs.

Story courtesy Michael Randazzo

Collegiate Water Polo Association