On The Record with Brad Kruetzkamp, UC San Diego Women’s Water Polo Coach

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UCSD head women's water polo coach Brad Kruetzcamp in happier times. Photo Courtesy: Derrick Tuskan

SAN DIEGO, CA. The scene two weeks ago at UC San Diego’s Canyonville Aquatics Center was one of confusion. Hawai’i’s women’s water polo team had flown in for a Friday, March 13th match against host UCSD—but news was rampant that the polo season was in peril due to the novel coronavirus outbreak. The Big West Conference subsequently took an unprecedented step, cancelling all athletic competition for the remainder of the season, including what would have been the Triton’s first ever conference match.

uc-san-diegoAs the reality of COVID-19’s impact continues to settled in, with the number of Americans infected closing in on 70.000, including more than 1,000 deaths, the fallout from one facet of the crisis continues to reverberate. As a precaution there are no athletic events in America, or anywhere else in the world.

Swimming World spoke last week with Triton Head Coach Brad Kruetzkamp about how unusual this moment is, how he and his players are adjusting to a new reality and how a promising season—UCSD’s first as a member of The Big West, a Division I conference—has been upended by one of the worst health scares in recent memory.

– These are strange circumstances we’re in right now. When was the last time you weren’t involved in water polo in March?

Never. Actually, I take that back. 20 years. It’s 20 years since I have not been doing something with water polo in March.

– Take me through how you found out about the cancellation of your season and how you shared it with your team.

It started ramping on Wednesday [March 11]. We had a game that Friday, our first home conference game in the Big West, against Hawai’i. We had been practicing all week. In addition to that, the weekend was also going to have the Aztec Invite [at neighboring San Diego State] as well.

Early in the week [an indicator] was when Harvard backed out. Then Princeton backed out and [UC] Irvine kept rescheduling.

[Ivy League To Cancel All Athletic Events Through Remainder Of Spring]

It was on that Wednesday I got a call from the UCSD administration saying: “We are going to continue with the Hawaii game, but are going to do a limited crowd.” The athletes could bring up to five or six per person into the event.

I called Hawai’i to let them know it’s on. Maureen Cole [Hawai’i head coach] was concerned about doing the trip. I told her Wednesday [and] they were on a plane getting in Thursday.

[On The Record with Maureen Cole, Head Coach of Hawai’i Women’s Water Polo]

Thursday practice rolls around and things were pretty normal. [Then] we just got the word that if they cancel the basketball tournament then they’re canceling water polo too. Friday morning, we come to loosen out, swim around for the game that evening. And that’s when I got the text, “Basketball canceled. Water polo canceled.”

I’m like, “Oh no!” I called the administration just to clarify what it meant. And it was, yeah, we’re done. But at that point it was just this weekend. We’re canceling the Hawai’i game and the Aztec Invite is being canceled as well.

I called the team in, gathered them around and explained the news to them. Their faces were in shock because up until that point… You purposely guard the team —you don’t want to give them every little bit of information because it spins out [and] we lose focus on what we’re supposed to be doing.

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UC San Diego women’s water polo in happier times. Photo Courtesy: Derrick Tuskan

Their faces at that moment as we’re gathered around that south cage, and I explained it to them, was just shock. They were looking around at each other going, “We’re really canceled…?”

And—”Is our season canceled?” I said, “No, at this point they want us to be done with this practice and these games. We’ll make more decisions as the weekend goes on.”

That’s how it went.

– The weekend came and went, and what other conversations did you have with your team?

We took the weekend off, and it all started coming out; NBA teams being canceled left and right. When the real March Madness tournament was canceled, that’s when we knew it was all going to go bad from there.

I kept sending digital [messages] on our group chat. The announcement made by the Big West along with all the other conferences—it seemed like it was happening every 10 minutes. The conference was canceling all the spring sports.

– The Rudy Gobert situation—the NBA player who tested positive for COVID-19—made the news Wednesday night. And the NBA suspended play the next day.

Yeah, that’s when I pulled them in and said, “I don’t have a lot of answers for you, I just don’t. But I felt really weird about sending you guys off for finals, and then spring break without being face-to-face one last time here for who knows how long.”

So, there weren’t a lot of questions because there weren’t a lot to talk [about]. At that time, I thought we’ll at least have some practices. This is before they announced they didn’t want students on campus anymore. At that point I figured, hey, they’re coming back for spring. At least we’ll practice.

And I said something to the effect: “Hey, you know what, we’re going to play water polo for fun. We’re not preparing for any sort of competitions. So. let’s get back to the love of the game itself. Let’s just play. And we’ll get in, we’ll scrimmage, we’ll mix teams up, we’ll have fun because it feels like it’s been forever since we played that kind of water polo.” And they were all smiles.

They thought that’s a great idea, let’s just do that. But since that, it’s constantly changing. And as a head coach, you like schedules, you like making sure that we’re ready to do things on a certain amount of time. That’s been one of the biggest frustrations for me is I can’t do that. I have no control over anything right now.

– There are no routines… nothing is routine.

Exactly. I see things on social media right now from the other teams out there, [what] they’re doing which gives us ideas. So, my mind, as soon as it starts formulating something about, like let’s make a simulated senior night.

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Photo Courtesy: WWPA

That was when you could have 250 together. Then it went down to 50 people together, so we couldn’t do that. Now we can’t get together with groups of 10. Every time I try to make something positive out of this it’s another moment of, no, you can’t do that.

– We talked at the beginning about how this cancellation is unprecedented. How difficult is it for you, your staff and your athletes?

Well, as hard as it’s been on the team just yet, after that Friday they went into finals—so this would be a natural break for us anyway. Today would’ve been the first volunteer practice back. So, we purposely give them their distance right now during finals week, which is what I do always this time of year.

But then we would start cranking it back up. So now is the time where I’m trying to devise communication and things for us to do. To see how they’re doing. I’ve had little moments just calling the seniors, and saying. They’re beyond upset and sad about everything they’re going to miss out on.

– Speaking of the seniors, the NCAA has indicated that seniors in winter, spring sports, would be granted another year of eligibility. How do you view that?

When it first came out, I thought it was all spring sports athletes—not just seniors—were being given another year of eligibility. And if that’s the case, it’s going to be really complicated. But I had conversations with three seniors that day in the meeting, and asking if this was possible, what they were looking at. And I got three different answers.

I’ve got one who’s ready to move and play abroad. I’ve got one that already had eligibility left anyway, and she might have more school and might just stay. And then she was in limbo of because she was done. She literally has no classes left to take, and her spring quarter would have had zero classes. She would have just been playing water polo.

This is who I feel for the most. She has been working so hard to break that starting lineup. And she was playing her best she’d ever had. All the things she worked for this spring quarter of no classes, she’s a 3.6 student. She’s got great grades. She’s been working her tail off for this moment to just play water polo, and then this happens.

There are no words. I found her on the pool deck, and she was in tears. And there’s nothing you can say. It was just one giant long hug that lasted longer than anything I can remember.

– The other question that occurs is—for water polo—you only have eight scholarships. The financial consideration of staying in school for another year is significant, unless they’re on 100% scholarship.

Well, and then think about from a coach’s perspective, what if one of these seniors was on 100%? And you were planning on using that place for a freshman that’s coming in.

– One that you’ve already signed.

And that you’ve already signed. What about that waiver? Is there going to be a one year waiver? But then there’s a trickle-down effect. Then you’re always going to be over your budget because you pushed everything back.

And, what institution you’re at. I’m sure a school [that’s] a little bit better financial, or a med school in a financial position to do something like that, as opposed to maybe a Division II school that has two scholarships.

– Another thing I wanted to ask you about is before the cancellation of the season, this was a season of change for UC San Diego women’s water polo.

What worked for us was that the move to the Big West fit my team. The team we had recruited was actually starting for us, this group of heavy juniors, was now coming into their own. They had two years, freshman and sophomore year, to play, learn the game.

I’m a big promoter of chemistry, and playing with somebody is a big part of your success. They were very close and very tight, and now here it is, these final two years, junior and senior year with this group was really starting to click for us. We were working simultaneously on back-filling the freshman and sophomore groups to fulfill their talent.

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UC San Diego goalie Bennet Bugelli. Photo Courtesy: Derrick Tuskan

Going into [the] Santa Barbara match, there’s so many unknowns. I felt that our five-man and six on five—which I think is always a direct relation to how long you’ve played with each other—are parts of the game where everybody really has to be thinking the same. A counter attack is pretty individualistic. Forecourt offense may have two or three people involved with it at any given time. But when you’re a five man or you’re a six on five, you are all working together exactly.

Our five-man percentage was down to 19%, we were holding teams to a 19% success rate. And our six on five is up to about 43%, which is about normal. But when you’re holding other teams on five-man to that kind of percentage, then you don’t worry so much about getting kicked out.

In addition to that, I really felt that [goalie] Bennet Bugelli in the cage had started to develop into a top goalie. I had conversations with my staff saying, “Who’s better out there right now? Who’s better? She at least ranks with some of the top goalies in the country right now?”

And she really kept us in some games. The defense in the cage and our five-man was really clicking for us.

– The parity in women’s college water polo this year was apparent. You guys beat Cal early in the season and Santa Barbara beat UCLA. Those were a couple of markers for parity.

We played USC, UCLA, Cal, Stanford, before all this went down. And—besides the Stanford game—we had pretty good success in those games against USC and UCLA. We were great in those games, really competing.

In our meetings, when we prepare for another team, I have a no bulls..t rule with my team. If we are clearly better than another team, we’re going to talk about it from that perspective. And if another team is better than us, we’re going to talk about that as well.

[Here We Go Again; Upsets Aplenty on First Full Weekend of NCAA Women’s Water Polo Season]

I’m not going to sit there and lie to them and say” “Hey, if we play perfect today we can be Stanford, when they have three Olympians on the team today.” It’s not going to happen. We’re going to go out there and work on different things because we have different goals, and we are going to get better today by playing against these players, okay?

That was the past strategy… but not this year. We knew after beating Cal that we could play with everybody. Looking at all the scores across the country, we were like: “Wow, Cal is close with this, and Irvine beat all these different schools.”

We can play with everybody. So, when I’m up on the board in our meeting room, and I’m listing out the USC players by name, their stats, what they do, and showing video of those players to our team and what they do… we’ve never done that in the past. I didn’t want to scare them; “This is who you’re about to play.”

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UCSD is no stranger to winning; in 2019 they took their 7th-straight WWPA title.

But now it’s: “Hey, we’re not far behind these teams, and they’re going to have to play their butts off to beat us.” It gave [us] renewed confidence to the team. And that was something I think every athlete kind of yearns for, right?

It was a lot of fun. And I’ll tell you from a coach’s standpoint, I didn’t get much sleep. It was like: “Oh my gosh, who’s next?” Every single game was tough. So. finishing the year ranked 10th in a year like this makes what’s happening that much more bittersweet. I mean, gosh, what could have been?

We’re not the only team thinking that. Every team out there’s thinking, “What could have been?” I believe this could have been a year in which the national championship wasn’t from the MPSF. It could’ve been anybody. Irvine, Hawaii, Michigan, ASU.

And we’re not going to be able to see that.

– The last thing I wanted to ask you about is the pandemic that we’re experiencing is a black swan event. UC San Diego with 40,000 students and a good chunk of those are internationals—they’ve had to leave campus. To your knowledge, is your group healthy? Is everyone okay?

Like I said, I have that group text. And from all indications, yes.

I feel like this age, this college age, they’re confused because they don’t see anybody in their demographic being hurt. Demographically they’re probably the least likely person to be sick in this pandemic. They are healthy, they’re young, they don’t have underlying conditions at all. They’re athletes, they’re healthy.

I get text messages of them [titled]: “We’re getting our workout in today.” And it’s a picture of them playing Nintendo.

There’s a natural break in water polo for us, and that’s the summertime. We’re not there yet, so I don’t want to go there yet. I’ll give them that natural break in summer. But right now, we want to try to make this as—weird as this sounds—as normal as we possibly can.

– The NCAA has suspended all recruiting activity in person till April 15th. Are you in touch with any recruits at this point? What are you focused on?

Well, this was kind of a slow time for recruiting anyway, where we’re touch basing, who’s interested, that kind of stuff. At this point right now, the current recruiting class that we were working on has all got information in emails

And we let them know that it’s a dead period now.

Honestly, I believe that the recruiting cycle right now for everybody, for every sport, is really taking a back seat. And that may burn us; maybe there’s somebody who’s going to take advantage of it, but at this point we kind of think there’s bigger things to worry about.

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