Catching Up with VMI’s Ryan Pryor and the Surprising Keydets

NCAA Women's Water Polo: VMI clamps down on George Washington, 14-10
VMI's Isabel French. Chuck Steenburgh / VMI Athletics

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor.

Women’s water polo in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) has seen a remarkable turnaround fashioned by one of the conference’s also-ran programs. One season after struggling through a dismal 8-19 campaign, the Keydets of the Virginia Military Institute are now 20-6 after a successful weekend in New York City where they captured wins over St. Francis Brooklyn and Villanova to clinch a first-ever berth in the MAAC playoffs.

One reason for the team’s success is team unity—in particular, collective grief regarding the tragic death of teammate Sarah Dolitsky’s younger brother David. Before matches, players write “#DD20” on their arms in tribute to the high school senior, an aspiring hockey player killed last summer in a freak auto accident.

The team’s dismay has been transformed into joy this season by their unexpected success, including a first-ever win over Eastern water polo power Iona and two exceptional efforts against three-time defending MAAC champs #17 Wagner College, including a scintillating performance Sunday in Staten Island, where the Keydets led late in the fourth period before dropping a 13-10 overtime decision to the host Seahawks.

Led by junior Shelby Barkley (76 goals) who Saturday became VMI’s career leading goal scorer with 197, and senior captains Ceci Lundy (60 goals), Bailey Huddelson (39 goals / 38 assists) and Natalie Rivas (35 goals / 24 blocks), the Keydets have delivered consistent offense to back up strong goalie play by freshman Isabel French and junior Catie Berry.

Swimming World spoke with Ryan Pryor, VMI’s head coach since 2014, about his team’s breakout season, the challenges of coaching women at a military academy and the Keydets’ possible path to an NCAA Women’s Water Polo Tournament berth.

By all measures your team has enjoyed a remarkable season. Why this unexpected change in fortunes?

We were very young last year. We returned almost everybody to this year’s roster and brought in a group of freshmen who are all contributing right now. And in my third year there’s an increased comfort level between me and the team.

In terms of expectations it’s clear that bringing everybody back has really been a driving force. On top of that our senior leadership this year has really been great. Co-captains Huddelson, Lundy and Rivas have done a great job leading the team in and out of the water.

What external factors have contributed to the best season in program history?

[There’s more] unity within the team, [but] I’m not sure I can point to a specific reason. We did a lot of team-building in the fall, in our non-traditional season.

This is a really close group of girls and it makes it really easy for them to work hard in the pool together and to support one another—not that we didn’t have that in the past, but it’s certainly been at a new level this year.

VMI is a military academy. Does the discipline at VMI impact your team?

People come to VMI for a lot of different reasons. The thing that’s common among all our students is [that] they like a challenge. They want something different. So it’s a group that is naturally going to want to have discipline, they’re going to want to work hard. That makes it a lot easier to get done what needs to get done. They’re naturally drawn to a lifestyle geared towards getting the most out of all areas of their life.

The training regimen for polo is extremely demanded; do you feel that your players are more receptive to this because they’ve chosen to attend a military academy?

I do, and in particular the aggressive, physical nature of the game has made it good fit at VMI, as evidenced by the fact that we have great support from the rest of the Corps whenever we have home games—there’s always a great crowd.

How is it at VMI—which historically has attracted male students—to have women athletes succeeding at a sport like polo?

It’s been 20 years since we integrated at VMI, so these aren’t the first generation [of women] to come through but it’s certainly early in the process and we’re still growing the numbers of women within the Corp.

We’ve gotten great support and I do think it’s noteworthy if only because we don’t have as long a history of women’s sports, having only had women at the Institute since 1997. It is noteworthy when a women’s team has the kind of success we’re having and it’s certainly creating a lot of buzz on post. People are excited.

Given the upcoming MAAC playoffs—uncharted waters for the Keydets—what do you take from your team’s impressive performance against Wagner on Sunday?

The team put in a great effort against Wagner.  Though we lost in overtime, it was great to take another step forward against a great opponent.  We’ll take a lot of confidence from this weekend as we close out the regular season next weekend and prepare for the MAAC tournament.

Obviously you had a plan but did you expect to have progressed so far in your third season in Lexington?

I knew that we were capable of this but obviously things needed to fall into place to turn that opportunity into results.

Last year we lost a lot of close games and this year we’re winning those games. That’s been part of the maturation process of the program. I try not to worry too much about wins and losses when I’m going into a season. I just want us to play well every day and let the results take care of themselves.

That being said I certainly knew this was possible if we put in the work.

You brought in Isabel French to play goal for you. How much of a factor has a new goalie been in changing the outcome of close games?

It’s been big—not just with Izzy but Catie Berry, our other goalie, has stepped forward this year [to make us] very strong in the cage. It’s always an adjustment process for freshmen, particularly goalies. You’re used to having maybe two or three shooters to worry about and all of a sudden everyone’s a good shooter.

There was an adjustment period during the fall in practice but Izzy’s really come along and she’s getting better every weekend. She and Catie have been a big part of the progress we’ve made from last year to this year.

barkley-vmi-apr-2017

Shelby Barkley. Photo Courtesy: VMI Athletics

You’ve gotten great production of your offense, especially Barkley, Huddelson and Lundy.

Our offense has been really strong all around and we’ve had a couple of players that have been out in front in terms of goal scoring but for the most part we’ve had a balanced attack. We’ve got six players with over thirty goals coming into this weekend and another one over 20. We’ve spread out the scoring even with those couple that are out in front.

That helps us to stay consistent because we’re not relying on one or two players to get it done—we have a lot of people who can score.

You mention Shelby—she’s been outstanding. If my math is correct she’s one shy of tying the all-time record for goal which and as just a junior that’s obviously very impressive. [With nine goals Saturday and four Sunday Barkley now has 197 goals].

She’s been outstanding ever since she was a freshman.

What has your experience been as the head coach of the Keydets?

I’ve been fortunate over the years to work with a lot of good coaches that I’ve been able to learn from both as an athlete and then when I got into the coaching profession. I’ve worked in different regions as well and water polo—perhaps more than any other sport—you’re going to see different perspectives depending upon what region of the country you’re in.

I’m from the Midwest and I’ve had an opportunity to work in the Northeast, now I’m in the South and obviously work a lot with people from the West Coast. That’s been a tremendous help in rounding out how I see the game.

Most of the top water polo players and coaches come from California—I come from a different background—so I bring a different perspective. I think I have a well-rounded view of the game.

Your team has covered a lot of territory going from three to nine (and counting) conference wins in one year. Do you see VMI narrowing the gap with the top MAAC teams, including Wagner and Marist?

I’m really proud about how much we’ve closed that gap. If we’re playing well we can compete with anybody. The biggest focus for us is taking care of business and making sure we get into that top four [the MAAC championships—from April 28 – 30—are between the top four regular season finishers].

The results against those top teams, they really matter that last weekend in April.

Outside of that I want to see us get closer and closer to those teams, focus on getting into the tournament and making sure we can make it happen from there.

Other military academies have elaborate ways to celebrate success. What might the Keydets do to celebrate if they find a way to win a MAAC title and secure the program’s first-ever NCAA berth?

If we were to make the NCAA tournament we’d stick with the classic “coaches plunge.” Some things are in style everywhere!