UCSD's water polo program turns heads

The UCSD men’s water polo team won its 13th Western Water Polo Association conference championship on Nov. 23, securing a spot in the NCAA tournament in two weeks. For head coach Denny Harper, who’s been the coach of all 13 of those teams, this should be old hat by now, right?

“”There was a time in my coaching career when I was fired up to win these things and it was all about me, but now it’s just all about them,”” Harper said. “”I can’t be any more proud of how hard they played.””

When the team tried to get him into the pool, Harper tried to fight it, looking for something to grab on to — just like he always does. All he found was senior captain Bryon Spicer who, despite Harper’s best efforts, got the coach in the water.

“”I’m not going to make it easy [to get me in the pool],”” the coach said. “”I never make it easy. I think my record is two minutes holding onto a bar.””

However, Harper’s record of two minutes isn’t the most amazing thing about UCSD men’s water polo. In a school that has only recently moved to Division II and still doesn’t give scholarships to athletes, Harper has been able to maintain a program that consistently competes on a national level with Division I schools, unlike any other sport at UCSD.

Not only do his teams compete, but, with the help of the many players he’s coached, Harper has made it almost standard for UCSD to beat Division I schools.

In 2000, the Tritons upset USC in the national semi-final game before losing to UCLA in the finals.

That year, Harper won the National Coach of the Year award, and with his 13th WWPA conference title this season, Harper collected his 14th Coach of the Year award in the WWPA.

Despite his wealth of experience and credentials, the coach wasn’t afraid to fiddle with his team and try something new. This season, Harper adjusted to his team’s youth and depth, using an unprecedented substitution pattern. Subbing two whole squads of six in and out of the game and giving 12 players significant playing time each game, UCSD wore down many bigger and stronger opponents.

With no scholarships to offer and high academic standards, coaches at UCSD may find it difficult to entice some top-level athletes to come here.

But with its program’s success and consistency against such a high level of competition, UCSD men’s water polo seems to make a name for itself nationally and turn the heads of some top recruits almost every year.

For all but five UCSD players, Nov. 23 marked their first conference championship. In front of almost 1,500 spectators, they celebrated the achievement for the first time. But Harper’s program has been there before; this time, both the coach and players want more.

“”It’s really special,”” Harper said. “”I’m relieved and happy, but I’ve already given out the workout schedule and I’m already thinking about what the National Collegiate Athletic Association match-ups might be. My mind’s already caught up. I don’t think [the players] are, but the university pays me to have them prepared.””

The Tritons are two games away from being national champions.

“”I think we could come out and pull an upset,”” senior Kellan Hori said.

An upset it would be — a surprise it would not.