Five Questions for Colleen Lischwe, Head Coach of McKendree Men’s and Women’s Water Polo

Colleen Lischwe coaching the McKendree women last spring. Photo Courtesy: McKendree Athletics

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

As the McKendree men’s water polo team opens its second season of varsity play Saturday at the Navy Invitational, it’s worth noting a bit of history being made; one of the few instances in NCAA athletics where a woman is leading a men’s team into competition.

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Colleen Lischwe, who last June was named Bearcat men’s coach after helming their women’s team the past two seasons, isn’t hung up on history; she’s focused on making her teams better. The St. Louis native has no trouble coaching or competing against the boys; like many female polo players she grew up playing on coed teams. It wasn’t until she arrived at Marist College that she enjoyed the advantages of women’s polo; Lischwe played under Ashleigh Jacobs and went to back-to-back NCAA Women’s Water Polo Tournaments (2008, 2009).

After serving as an assistant and then head coach at Kirkwood High School, her alma mater, Lischwe came to Lebanon in 2016 as a graduate assistant to then-Bearcat Head Coach Greg Emde and quickly climbed the McKendree coaching ladder. Named head women’s water polo coach in 2017, she recently led the Bearcats in their first season in the Western Water Polo Association, guiding McKendree to a seventh-place finish in the 2017 WWPA tournament. When Ryan Hall left last spring for an assistant position at Redlands, she added head men’s coach to her responsibilities.

Last week as she prepared her team for a season-opening weekend in Annapolis, Lischwe responded to Swimming World about how valuable her Bearcats experience has been, the growth of polo in the Midwest, and why it’s really not a big deal when women play—and beat—men in and out of the pool.

– You’ve enjoyed a rapid ascent through the McKendree coaching ranks; from assistant to women’s head coach to now leading both the men’s and women’s programs. How has your experience informed your perspective of the potential—and challenges—of Bearcat polo?

The past two seasons at McKendree have provided me with the best learning experiences I could have ever imagined. When I joined the coaching staff for the program’s inaugural season in 2016, I knew that this was the beginning of accomplishing my goal to one day become a collegiate head coach—and my objective was to soak up as much water polo knowledge as possible.

Looking back as I now step into a new role and prepare, as head coach, to lead both the men’s and women’s teams into their third year, I am not sure there is anything that could have prepared me more than my experience at McKendree so far. Together, our Bearcat family has undergone numerous changes during our short history but we have grown massively as a  result.

I am so appreciative and proud of our programs for embracing the changes we have faced and turning them into experiences that will allow us to learn and grow. With every upward step I make in the coaching ranks at McKendree, my to-do list has gotten longer, the questions for my mentors and administrators have become more frequent, and the long days and late nights watching film and scribbling coaching notes have become more numerous. Though I sometimes wish for more hours in a day, I truly wouldn’t have it any other way. I believe that this team can do anything, can bounce back from anything, and will succeed against all odds.

– As I’m sure you are aware, there are very few instances a woman leading a men’s NCAA varsity program. You’re now a member of a prestigious (and exclusive) group; what are some of your concerns and also, how will your particular experience and perspective impact men’s polo at McKendree?

I grew up in St. Louis where there is no girls’ polo. High school and club programs are co-ed but majority male athletes and so from the very beginning of my career I was one of few females involved with water polo in my area. I fell in love with polo as soon as I started playing and I have honestly never given much thought to the fact that the for the majority of my time as a part of this sport, I was one of few women in the water or coaching on deck.

In fact, it wasn’t until I started participating on the USA Water Polo zone teams (now ODP) late in high school and heading off to Marist to play in college that I fully experienced women’s water polo. No matter who I am coaching or playing with, it feels natural to me and I welcome any opportunity to continue my journey in this sport.

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Joseph Mahan. Photo Courtesy: McKendree Athletics

In having served as a teammate, coach, and role model to both men’s and women’s teams, I feel uniquely qualified for the position I am now in. I do my best work while under pressure and always welcome a new challenge, so jumping in to a new leadership role is very motivating for me. Being named head coach of the men’s program at McKendree feels like coming home. My water polo career is rooted in the men’s game and I am so honored and excited to be leading McKendree’s group of talented coaches and athletes who are dedicated to growing this program with me.

I am grateful to be joining the list of remarkable women leading a men’s NCAA varsity programs and I hope to be a part of a revolution to normalize women leading men’s teams and help to set a standard for women as leaders and role models in whatever path they choose.

I have had the opportunity to work for and alongside a handful of very talented coaches who have mentored me and prepared me for the position that I am in today and I am confident that my experiences in the water polo world have equipped me to make a positive impact on the developing programs at McKendree regardless of my gender.

– I think it’s fair to say that—in the college ranks—polo is enjoying a much-needed growth spurt, and McKendree is very much a part of this. What has having a men’s and women’s varsity programs in the middle of the country meant to the sport’s long-term health?

I think about this often and am constantly brainstorming as to how I, as both a Midwesterner and a water polo coach, can help grow our sport in this region. It has always been a personal goal of mine to push and promote the development of water polo in my area, but simply as a lover of the game, I want to see it become a sport that continues to gain athletes and fans across all levels.

The addition of men’s and women’s varsity programs at McKendree will absolutely pave the way for further cultivation of our sport across collegiate athletics. I am so grateful to the athletics administration at McKendree for supporting my plea to travel to as many tournaments around the country as possible—not only to gain valuable game experience as a new team, but also to share the growth of water polo that is already occurring in the Midwest.

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Build a pool and water polo will come. Photo Courtesy: McKendree Athletics

This year we welcome 21 men and 13 women to our programs, and also are adding a competitive collegiate club team, proving that there is certainly a place for water polo in the Midwest and plenty of room for it to grow. At McKendree, I am striving to develop teams that make the McKendree Bearcats a household name just like many programs already established on the West and East Coasts, and I am hopeful that we will soon see the addition of more Midwestern collegiate teams in the near future that will help build on this.

– Austin College is following your program’s lead, launching men’s and women’s polo this academic year. What sort of advice do you have for Kangaroos Head Coach Mark Lawrence as he embarks upon his program’s inaugural voyage?

As any coach will tell you, every program experiences a series of unique challenges, whether the program is new or not. My best advice is to hit the ground running, teach the administration and student body about the sport, establish a team culture early, and embrace every opportunity to grow the program and lay a foundation for years to come.

My experience at McKendree I think has been unique, between quickly moving up in the coaching ranks while also working to establish two (now three with the addition of our club program) new programs. There has been a lot of change within the program as we enter our third year but I have found success in learning from the past, putting it behind us, and pushing forward. There will always be a moment in a game that you lose sleep over, a decision you wish you could go back and make differently, or an instance that you know was more deserving of praise and celebration than was given. Every joy and every disappointment is an opportunity to grow as a team, to motivate your athletes, and to inspire greater successes in the future.

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Lischwe with former McKendree coach Ryan Hall. Photo Courtesy: McKendree Athletics

Mark is a great coach with a lot of experience working with some very talented programs. Austin College is lucky to have him and I am sure that he will lead the Kangaroos to a solid first season.

– Of course, you play the game to win! What can polo observers expect from the Bearcat men this season—and how will your team fare in its second season in the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference West?

I am beyond excited to begin competing with this group! Already the guys are hard at work in the pool and strength center and have established an incredible team bond and work ethic in just the few days we have been back in training.

We have a very big class of newcomers to add to a core group of returning athletes, who each have individual talents that I am confident will propel us to a higher finish in the MAWPC West. This is by far the best group of athletes we’ve had since the team was formed, and I expect big things from them.

We return the program’s top scorer and all-conference selection, Jojo Mahan, who I expect will lead the team offensively this year with the help of junior captain Michael Krause and freshmen Matthew Haygood, Tony Sunagawa, and Nico Rodriguez.

Leading the way defensively will be junior captain Izaya Owotor, and freshmen Brad Nelms and Peter Germuska. Ori Scanlon, a returning sophomore and third team captain, has grown to become our top goaltender and will make huge contributions to the team in the cage.

In the water our Bearcats are faster, stronger, and smarter than in years past and I am stoked to see what they do throughout the course of our season.

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Author: Michael Randazzo

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Michael Randazzo is a freelance contributor at Swimming World focusing on water polo. He covers polo all over the United States for SW and other publications, including the Collegiate Water Polo Association, Skip Shot, The New York Times, Total Water Polo, Water Polo Planet and others. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children and roots for St. Francis Brooklyn polo.

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