Five Questions for Shane Unger, New Gannon Men’s and Women’s Water Polo Coach

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The Gannon Lady Knights are all in for new Head Coach Shane Unger. Matt Mead Photography LLC

One of the more intriguing coaching changes this NCAA varsity women’s water polo season is the arrival of Shane Unger at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania. A veteran of the explosive Southern California polo scene as a coach with Socal—one of the country’s most successful age group clubs—Unger takes over a Golden Knights program that just enjoyed one of the greatest men’s polo season in its history. Gannon opened the season with 19 straight wins before dropping a 12-9 decision to McKendree in the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference Eastern Championships.

Unger will now assume command from Sean Morphy, a former Golden Knight goalie whose coaching success extended two decades of excellence in Erie, PA. Unger is up to the task, and with his connections to Socal’s incredibly fertile reservoir of talent, the possibilities for Gannon go beyond competing against regional rivals McKendree, Mercyhurst, Penn State Berhend, Salem and Washington & Jefferson.

[On The Record with Sean Morphy, Former Head Coach for Gannon Men’s and Women’s Polo]

Taking a break from preparing his Lady Knights for their first match of the 2019 campaign—Saturday, February 9, when they’ll open against #21 Harvard at the Bucknell Invitational in Lewisburg, PA—Unger corresponded with Swimming World about the WWPA’s unusual roster of teams from East and West, inheriting a well-stocked roster from Morphy and how California coaches—including Tom Hyham at LaSalle and Larry Sanders at Villanova—are migrating East to transform the culture of Pennsylvania polo.

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Socal 2018 14U Junior Olympics medalists. Photo Courtesy: S. Unger

– You’re coming from a very successful Socal Club program; why the switch to a college in the Midwest?

Being with SOCAL for 13 years, and being a part of numerous national championships as an assistant coach and head coach with both boys and girls was the best training I could have possibly received in order to set me up for a college coaching job. Over that time I worked directly with dozens of athletes who went on to successful Division 1 college careers, professional water polo careers overseas, and a few that went on to represent our country on the men’s and women’s national team in the Olympics and other national team events.

I always knew that I wanted to coach college water polo and this was a perfect opportunity to get my foot in the door at Gannon. The experience I received coaching both boys and girls from 8-18 years old, and becoming the shooting specialist at SOCAL, where I independently ran all of the shooting clinics, allowed me to hone my skills as a coach. It also taught me how to be versatile in working with large numbers for both boys and girls teams of all ages, which can be a very different endeavor from one gender to the next. The Midwest was where the opportunity arose, so I took it. So far I love it.

– The Golden Knights just finished the best year in program history; it will be hard to equal that in your first season with the women. What’s a reasonable expectation?

The expectation is to continue to build a solid program for the Women and continue the established success for the men. The men lose a few key players, but good recruiting will fill those gaps. Coach Morphy did a great job leaving me with a solid athlete base and recruiting pool to work with. Add that to my connection to the SOCAL program back in California, and the network of high school and Junior college coaches that I have forged lasting relationships with over the last decade+.

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Senior Campbell Ruh, Gannon’s top scorer in 2018. Photo Courtesy: Matt Mead Photography LLC

I believe I will be able to create a recruiting pipeline from that area that will include kids from Southern California that may not have previously thought about heading to the Mid-West for water polo. I would like to create a mix of water polo talent from the Southern California area and the local talent around Erie and the surrounding east coast areas to establish a culture of high level water polo that will be consistent for the years to come.

– What sort of life adjustments will you make in this first season in Erie, PA?

It will be a big life change. The advantage I have had was being able to come out here ahead of my family and get a lay of the land, and the people I will be working with. The athletic director and other coaches have welcomed me with open arms and provided much needed support as I get comfortable with my surroundings. I drove out to Erie with my dog about a month and a half ago. My wife and two young daughters will be joining me in early February when we move into our house. I was able to go back to Cali and surprise my daughters over Christmas which was amazing, and broke up the time that I have been without them.

I miss my family immensely, but from a professional standpoint, coming out here solo was probably the best thing in order to get everything in line before my family joins me. We are embracing the challenge of uprooting and moving across country. The wonderful people here and the overall vibe I have gotten in Erie so far have solidified my decision to move out here.  As far as coaching goes, I will not change anything. I come from a very successful SOCAL program and I am looking to bring that mindset and winning culture with me to Erie. I have already been working with the Women’s team and they are definitely buying into what I am selling them.

– You inherited your current roster from outgoing coach Sean Morphy; please talk about the current roster and how you expect your recruiting will impact the Lady Knights’ roster?

Coach Morphy did a great job setting me up for success. The women’s team welcomed two very good transfers from a local college team that will be big impact players for us. One of my other girls, I have known since she was two years old, as her father was my college coach in California. She will be a junior this year and brings that California style with her to the WWPA conference. As I stated earlier, with my connections back in California, I already have kids who played for me, or participated in my clinics while I was at SOCAL in the pipeline for the next few years that may have not even thought of coming out here before.

The notable difference in the level of water polo is that in California, the kids start at 5, 6 and 7 years old and play year round, whereas, out here, most of the kids don’t start until high school and only play partially throughout the year. So in California, by the time these kids get to high school they have already played water polo at a high level for numerous years.

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Unger (sunglasses, front left) with Socal 14U Boys JO winners. Photo Courtesy: S. Unger

My goal is to create a youth movement in the Erie area where they start before high school and fall in love with the sport just as all of the kids who have played it previously have. This will elevate the level of the sport and allow for a larger recruiting pool of talent from all over the country.

Water polo has surpassed lacrosse over the last few years as the fastest growing club sport in the country. Being that it can be played at the indoor pools year round makes it appealing to parents as they look for a great sport to get their children into regardless of the time of year or weather conditions. It is a hidden gem of a sport that I believe will only grow in popularity, allowing the recruiting and level of competition to grow along with it all over the country.

– The WWPA is one of the country’s most progressive conferences because it’s divided between California and non-California teams. How important was this to you coming to Gannon?

Honestly, I didn’t even think about this as a precursor to me taking the job. I interviewed for the job, and after talking to the Athletic Director and other coaches here at Gannon I knew I would be coming to a place where there was a built in support system and a family atmosphere.

The fact that the conference is split between East and West coast is a nice perk however. I will also be able to take recruiting trips every year back to Cali during the Junior Olympics and National Club Championship tournaments which will allow me to stay in touch and visit with all of the friends that I have made over the last decade + within the great sport of water polo. It is a tight knit community and I am hoping that my move out to Erie will only help bring that unity even closer together.

3 comments

  1. avatar
    Jeff Zettel

    Shane Unger exemplifies what is great about the sport and beyond that is a quality dude. Excited for Shane and Gannon. Erie rising!

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      Hi Jeff:

      Thanks for your comments. I don’t know Coach Unger personally—though I certainly know about the success of the Socal club. I think this is an inspired pairing, especially given the depth of quality polo in the Erie, PA community.

      I’ll keep an eye on things and hope to perhaps get out to the WWPA tournament in May.

      Your correspondent

  2. avatar
    Tom & Christine Clarke

    Good luck Shane, I know you will do a great job! Go Gannon!