On The Record with Colleen Lischwe, Head Coach of McKendree Men’s and Women’s Water Polo

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McKendree Bearcats—2018 Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference-West Champs. Photo Courtesy: CWPA

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

THE BRONX, NY. Prior to her first season as head coach for the McKendree men’s water polo team, Swimming World asked five questions of Colleen Lischwe. The St. Louis native led the Bearcat women the previous spring, and—in taking on a new assignment this fall—Lischwe became one of the few women in NCAA athletics to lead a men’s team.

And lead them she did!

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A 12-9 win over unbeaten Gannon in the semifinals of the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference-West—where the Bearcats ended the Golden Knights’ 20-match winning streak—led to a triumph over Salem 13-12 in the MAWPC-West final; the program’s first ever post-season title.

At Fordham for the MAWPC-East Championship—which the Bearcats (15-13) qualified for by virtue of winning the West—Lischwe spoke again with Swimming World about her team’s successful fall campaign, the program-defining win over Gannon, and what the future holds for her men’s and women’s programs.

– You’re (almost) through your first season as head coach for the McKendree men’s team. What has that experience been like?

I am so stoked to be here! I could not have imagined being in this place now. I started as a GA, took over the women’s program and had an opportunity to take over the men’s program.

I grew up playing with guys and I enjoy coaching them. This season is the first where things are really coming together for us. I’m really proud of the players for putting in the work.

Our juniors have had three coaches in three years—there’s been a lot of turnover. This year they’re getting consistency and stability. They have a team and a staff that super supports them.

I was just talking with one of my captains; right now we have the opportunity to forecast for next year. Things are only going to go up. Beating Gannon and winning MAWPC-West in our second year as a varsity program is more than I could have asked for.

But it’s also something that I expect to be a tradition for us. While I am super proud of them, I’m not done [and] they’re not done yet.

– Gannon was on the cusp of completing an historic season of success—and the Bearcats beat them!

We did beat them. We had the opportunity to play them twice; the first time we were without a captain, we were without an important starter… and we lost by 10 (September 23). After that game we knew that we could play better. The next time we played them at home and it’s a four-goal game (October 13).

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Lischwe flanked by coaches Jen Liu and Jeff Passwater. Photo Courtesy: CWPA

Leading up to the [MAWPC-West] championship tournament we knew that if we make it through the first round—we don’t discount any games any teams ever—but if we make it through that first round then Gannon’s up next. And, we want to be the team that causes that heartbreak. I’ve been on the other end of that before—and it’s rough—but these guys worked day after day with a goal in mind.

When we got in the water I didn’t have a doubt in my mind that we weren’t going to win that game because of the way they were prepared and the way they had been playing leading up to it. It all came together at the right time.

We started a little slow this year—[we have] 18 freshmen on this team—so we had to learn how to mesh. But we build up just the way I wanted us to, and that led to an awesome win and got us here.

– How is it to be at Fordham playing with some of the best teams on the East Coast?

It’s certainly where we want to be. We want to be a team like Bucknell or [George Washington] in future years. I don’t graduate even one player next year, so we have the opportunity to continue stepping up. In order to do that we have to play teams like these.

Without the opportunity to be here then we wouldn’t know quite what to expect. I give [my players] as tough of a schedule as I can—but being here in a championship format, seeing these teams at their best; it’s good for us to participate in and good for us to learn from.

We tell them: every grab that you have to fight through; every call that you get, every shot that gets blocked—every shot that you make. That is helping us step up for future games, whether for tomorrow or next season.

I truly feel we can’t go anywhere but up at this point.

– You’ve been beating the boys at their game for much of your life. How does it feel to have accomplished so much in just one season coaching McKendree men?

It’s natural. These guys have been nothing but amazing. They listen, they respect, we have fun together. To me it was nothing. It meant taking over a team that I wanted to coach—regardless of my gender or theirs. It’s fun for me; this is what I’m passionate about, this is what I want to keep doing.

I’m really happy coaching them.

Come game time I’ve noticed from outside of our team some differences in the way I am looked at versus other coaches. But it’s nothing that phases me. To me, it’s just an opportunity to keep proving myself—and for the team to prove what they can do.

I’m a representation of them and they’re a representation of me; we work together and gender is no factor to us—and to them. I’m lucky that the group I have is like this.

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Coach Lischwe in action last spring. Photo Courtesy: McKendree Athletics

– There’s no rest for you and your staff; you have a women’s season that begins in a couple of months as well as recruiting and plans for next men’s season.

I’ve been recruiting really hard since I took over. I’m lucky enough to have four commits on the guys’ side and three on the women’s side—from all over the country. We have Texas, we have California, Missouri, Illinois… this is how we grow Midwest water polo. I want us to have a team that comes out and competes with teams in California, and top Eastern teams. The only way to do that is to keep recruiting talent.

We’re lucky enough to have a handful of kids from very strong clubs. I’m hoping that I can continue to partner with those clubs to get more talented athletes—and keep making a name for McKendree. I want us to be a household name like other big polo schools.

I think we’ll get there. We’re only three years in. I’m really happy with how quickly we’ve improved. The recruiting classes each year are a main focus—the guys and the girls help so much entertaining them while we have official visits, showing them a good time, answering questions. There’s support from the university; knowing what we need to improve; I absolutely don’t have any complaints.