39 Years And Counting In The Triton Family

UC San Diego Head Coach Denny Harper with star sophomore Connor Turnbow-Lindenstadt. Photo Courtesy: Cathryn Hayne

By Steven Munatones, Swimming World Special Contributor

Editor’s Note: Steven Munatones is the founder of the World Open Water Swimming Association and the Daily News of Open Water Swimming. Munatones’ son Skyler is a junior playing for the UC San Diego men’s water polo team.

While UCLA (11 NCAA titles and 20 NCAA Final appearances), Stanford (10 NCAA titles and 20 NCAA Final appearances), and USC (9 NCAA titles and 21 NCAA Final appearances) are vying for another national title, there is a fourth team – UC San Diego – that unexpectedly played its way to the Final Four that starts todays at Stanford’s home pool.


After beating UC Davis, its conference rival at the Western Water Polo Association tournament, and upending favored Long Beach State in the quarterfinal match yesterday, the UCSD Tritons now find themselves among the traditional powerhouses of collegiate water polo. At 3 p.m. (PST) UC San Diego will face highly favored and #1 ranked Stanford in its home pool in the first of two NCAA Final Four semi-final games.

The UCSD players were told to bring a jacket and tie with them to Palo Alto, but they would only be required to wear it at the NCAA Final Four banquet, featuring 5-time Olympian Tony Acevedo as the keynote speaker.

The team made sure they put their sartorial finery to good use.

But the back story on how the Tritons found themselves knotting their ties on a Friday night along with Bruins, Cardinals and Trojans is an illustrative example of how hard work, vision and commitment by coaches, trainers, administrators and athletes pays off.

After 39 years at the helm of the UC San Diego men’s water polo program, coach Denny Harper has seen and experienced a lot.


When chaos abounds, Coach Harper is one cool customer. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

He started in 1980 with a group of players who still refer to themselves as “the transition team,” as Harper moved the program from a Division 3 schedule to consistently competing against Division I teams.

“I was not a soft coach, but those players also wanted to do more. I changed our workout schedule and we worked out in the off-season, which was unheard of at the time at UCSD. Our student-athletes wanted to challenge themselves against the best the nation had to offer,” he recalled.

But in all those years, he is never had an inspirational comeback story like goalie Jack Turner.


UC San Diego’s Jack Turner has been a force—and an inspiration—for the Tritons all season. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

The 6’-7” aerospace engineering major is as lucky as he is unusual. He was selected to be the goalie for Team USA at the 2017 World University Games, but en route to his parents’ home in Fremont, California before heading to the San Francisco International Airport, he had a terrible car accident.

Due to a blown tire, his truck flipped over and began to roll over and over again until it landed on its roof off the highway. Turner was stuck upside down inside the cab of the truck. He was able to cut himself free from his seatbelt and then kicked out the passenger window and wiggled his way out of the car. He could not turn his head sideways and felt some numbness.

He later learned that he cracked his C1 vertebrae and had a full fracture of his C2 vertebrae. Victims of such breaks often become quadriplegic and are occasionally fatal as a result of their inability to breathe.

How Turner survived is inexplicable, but he was determined to rehabilitate and work himself back to shape and play with his teammates – even with a neck brace on for months.

“It was all pretty scary, being told that you shouldn’t be walking or breathing. But more than anything I was thinking about whether I’d be able to play again. I’d been doing it for so long — that was my identity,” he recalled to the San Diego Tribune.

“I probably went through the seven stages of grief before accepting it. And then being told that it’s not over, that I could continue my career — I knew it was going to be tough, but it ignited something in me. I didn’t give up, and it would have been easy to do that with a broken neck.”


UCSD’s Cooper Milton putting pressure on Long Beach State. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Turner missed the entire 2017 season, but eventually found himself back in the pool.

“Jack has been an unbelievable inspiration to everyone,” says Harper who himself survived cancer, a life-altering experience. “The way he came back from that serious accident is pretty unbelievable. I don’t know if his teammates even know how that accident impacted him. It’s a compelling story. But I know he is anxious for it to be in his rear view mirror.

“I felt the same way with my cancer. I dealt with it and eventually you want to move on. You reach a point that you don’t want to talk about it again.

“But Jack is the most inspirational story that I have had in 39 years.”

With Turner back in the cage, the rest of the season seemed to fall in place bit by bit, so a NCAA Final Four appearance—at least to the team—was a reasonable goal. But the Tritons were not favored to win the Western Water Polo Association this season and were most certainly not expected to beat Long Beach State on Thursday.

“The team is filled with overachievers,” Harper proudly admits. “Certainly, the education, our campus location in La Jolla, and the opportunity to play against high-level competition, all of these are factors in our success. But when people talk about our program or our 15 NCAA appearances or 10 NCAA Final Fours, they think UCSD is a fully funded scholarship program.  In fact [as an NCAA Division II university], we have one scholarship that gets shared.

“Some people also do not understand the academic standards of UCSD. But I believe the University of California system is the best education that students can get for their money. We are consistently ranked 7th among public institutions in America – and UCSD is ranked third in its alumni’s net earning income power.”


While Harper has been around for four decades and has put together a solid program that features the school band, cheer leaders and fans supporting the team from filled stands live cast at home games, it is the collective group of students, coaches and administrators who have made the long season successful.

“We have all seen it happen. This group and this season are the culmination of everything that we put together for these students. It included a total coaching staff effort. There is so much that goes behind the scenes and results in our success with [Associate Head Coach] Matt Ustaszewski, [volunteer Assistant Coach] Glenn Busch who was the goalie for UCSD’s last and only NCAA Finals appearance in 2000, [Operations Manager] Rob Patty, [Strength & Conditioning Coach] Matt Cox, [Director of Athletic Performance] Matt Kritz and [Athletics Trainer] Christian Ahlstrom who have prepared the team.

“With this team behind the team, we are on the cusp like other NCAA Division I programs. I have a lot of things at my fingertips that allows the players to train smarter and succeed academically, always moving at a pretty rapid pace.”

The culture that Harper started in 1980 has blossomed in myriad ways.  One of his former players is Assistant Athletics Director Danielle (Boyle) Melman, who accompanied the team to Stanford.

Sitting in the stands, Melman observed, “The energy within the team and in the stands was outstanding.  Between the parents, alumni, family friends and Triton supporters, you could feel the Triton Pride from a mile away.  It certainly had a positive experience on the student-athletes.”

Melman was wearing a grey UCSD wool hat during the Long Beach State game. It was symbolic of the ties that Harper had long created in La Jolla.

“I scored two goals from the outside in an important game against Long Beach State in 2001. Denny had made a small number of these UCSD hats that he would award to the player of the game, a team distinction. It was a privilege to receive one.

“17 years later, I still have the hat and wore it in Palo Alto for the Long Beach State game yesterday.”

39 years since his simple start in La Jolla, Harper is still enjoying the ride and making things happen for the Triton family.

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