On The Record with Craig Rond, Head Men’s and Women’s Water Polo Coach for Cal Lutheran

c_rond-clu-may19
Cal Lutheran Head Coach Craig Rond (left) is the only coach the Regals have ever known. Photo Courtesy: Cal Lutheran Athletics

Editor’s Note: The 2019 NCAA Women’s Water Polo Tournament is happening this week—and Swimming World has you covered! Keep up with all the action online or look for #SwimmingWorld on Twitter and other social media platforms.

A big part of who Craig Rond is—and how he views life—is through family, both immediate and extended. The only head coach the Cal Lutheran men’s and women’s water polo teams have ever known, Rond swam and played polo locally, first at Thousand Oaks High School and then at Ventura High School.

cal-luther-crestHe has also been an L.A. County ocean lifeguard for 37 years. In this he followed in his father’s footsteps; now his daughter Alexa (Lexi), not only plays polo for her dad at CLU, but is also a protector of the Los Angeles beaches.

My dad was Raymond Czechowski, and he guarded the beaches of New York in the late ‘30s and early 40s,” Rond said. “He changed his name to Rond prior to marrying my mother due to common discrimination. I became a lifeguard for L.A. County in 1984 and Lexi in 2018. Cool stuff.”

But working the beach beat is not what’s currently noteworthy around the Rond dinner table. The chatter’s all about the Regals’ stunning 10-9 victory over top-seed and back-to-back champs Pomona-Pitzer in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) title match a week ago. The unexpected win—CLU hadn’t beaten the Sagehens in nine previous meetings, including last year’s SCIAC final—has propelled the Regals into NCAAs for the first time since 2010.

It also was a welcome ray of sunshine in what has been a challenging time for Rond’s CLU family, in particular Victoria Rose Meek, one of his players. Last November, Meek’s brother Justin, a former polo player for the Cal Lutheran, was one of 12 people murdered in the Thousand Oaks attack at the Borderline Bar and Café, one of the deadliest mass-shootings in California history.

Rond, leader of the 2019 SCIAC Coaching Staff of the Year, spoke with Swimming World last week about the tragedy that struck at the heart of the tightly-knit Cal Lutheran community, the thrilling win over Pomona that was in part powered by Victoria Rose and Lexi, and the looming challenge of playing the Pacific Tigers, the country’s eighth-ranked team, later today in the national championship tournament.

[2019 NCAA Women’s Water Polo Tournament Bracket Announced]

– You’ve been with Cal Lutheran for a while—and it’s taken almost a decade to get the Regals back to NCAAs.

I’m the first and only coach we’ve had at Cal Lutheran. I started the program 16 years ago. You know, you win these things and sometimes you think it’s going to be automatic. You forget how hard it is, about how so much has to line up, both in the water [and] out. The right personalities and the right work ethic [needed] to get back there.

clu-sciac-may19

A championship for the Regals. Photo Courtesy: Cal Lutheran Athletics

Last year we came close, we got to the championship game. I just don’t think our girls were emotionally ready for that big stage. This year they’re prepared in so many ways. They had been there before, they had committed themselves to the weight room—our strength and conditioning coach at Cal Lutheran took on the women’s team. They worked really hard starting back in September. [Since then] they’ve been in the weight room three days a week for strength and conditioning and in the water in our off-season in October and November.

We came back to school a week earlier than normal just to get that extra work in, and it ended up paying off.

– CLU lost one of their own to tragedy when Justin Meek was killed in the Thousand Oaks shooting.

The night of the Borderline shootings, my wife woke me up at about 12:45 a.m. and said: Hey, there’s been a shooting at the Borderline. Thousand Oaks isn’t your quintessential college town—we don’t have a whole lot to do here for college students. But one thing they did have was Wednesday night Borderline line-dancing.

That day, our men’s team had just won a huge game to get us into the playoff picture for our conference. We hadn’t been in the playoffs for a couple of years. The guys were going to have a couple of days off and they were all preparing to go to the Borderline—my entire men’s team.

[Victoria Rose Meek, Cal Lutheran Water Polo Rise Like a Phoenix From Ashes of Thousand Oaks Shooting]

Late in the night, the team captain said: You know, I just wasn’t feeling good, and I don’t think I’m gonna go, I’m going to sit this one out.

They all decided to sit it out that night. Otherwise our entire team would have been in the bar that night.

I woke up at 12:45 a.m., we’re watching the news unfold and I told my wife: Hey, Justin Meek, remember him? Victoria Rose’s brother is a bouncer there. I know him: he would have made sure people were okay.

We immediately texted his mom; his mom and dad were down in San Diego. His dad ran the Navy SEAL base [there] for a decade. He was retiring after 40 years of Navy service. His retirement party was that Saturday. Victoria Rose and Justin were out on the town one last time, and Thursday morning were scheduled to go down to San Diego and a big celebration. 400 people were invited for Saturday, including my wife and me.

meek-clu-may19

Victoria Rose Meek. Photo Courtesy: Cal Lutheran Athletics

When this all took place, we didn’t find out officially; we texted his mom who said: I saw the news; I’m heading up. I did hear from Victoria Rose, who plays on our women’s team: “I’m out safe. We haven’t seen Justin so say a prayer.”

It was probably at 4:30 – 5 a.m. that we realized he was unaccounted for. They made the official announcement later on that morning.

It was such tragedy. Victoria Rose and her brother Justin were very close. If you were to ask either one they would say my sister or my brother is my best friend. I had seen Justin the day before the shootings, at the Cal Lutheran pool getting in swimming because he was trying to get in shape to go into the Coast Guard.

I let it all soak in and we went through all the memorials and vigils—we had the fires in town that engulfed Thousand Oaks, Malibu, all our surrounding cities, so we couldn’t even mourn properly. We were being evacuated, the freeways were being shut down because of the fires.

When everything settled later in December, I talked to Victoria Rose. At that point, she wasn’t even sure if she was going to come back.

I told her: I get it, but I’m going to say something: The shooter took away twelve people and [he] took your brother from you. Don’t let him take anything else. We will take care of you if you can muster the strength to play. And she did. And she ended up scoring two goals in that championship game.

She’s just been so courageous and amazing this year. She’s had her moments; a couple of days where she said: You know what coach, I think I need to go—and I respect her so much. I said: I’m going to give you whatever leash you need. If you need to, take a day off.

But she’s been so patient, so hard-working… one of the first people I saw after the victory was—the whole bench was crying, our girls were overcome with emotion—but her mother was in the stands right behind the goal, just sobbing like you can’t even picture. I told her: I think Justin pulled a couple of strings for us up there.

It was a great, emotional victory for us.

– Beating the Sagehens was something your current group of players had never accomplished.

Last year we played Pomona once during the regular season and didn’t do so well, and I didn’t think we could play with them. But this year we did. The first game we played [at home] we lost 12-7, but in that game, two critical starters for us picked up their third exclusions early in the second half—so we played the entire second half without two starters: Nikki Roed and Mardell Ramirez.

In the locker room after the game I said: Girls, do you think you can beat that team? Every single girl within a second said: Yes, we can. I told them they’d get another stab at it.

Three weeks later we saw [the Sagehens] again. This time it was at Pomona, and we ended up losing 7-5. There were some tough calls in the second half. After the game, I walked into the locker room and asked the girls: Do you think you can beat this team? And they said: Absolutely!

I think they saw we were closing the gap.

Before this last game I said: Nobody wins forever. Sometimes it feels that way—that a program will never lose because they’ve won so many times—but nobody wins forever. Somewhere along the way, you have to lose. And if anyone’s gonna beat [Pomona], it’s gonna be you.

roed-clu-may19

Nikki Roed. Photo Courtesy: Cal Lutheran Athletics

The girls went into the game so confident. In the fourth quarter when we went down by two goals, my daughter Lexi, she was so confident, [but] she’s a freshman, so she didn’t grasp this whole “We haven’t beat them in four years” deal.

I told her: It comes down to sometimes you just got to believe. Lexi said: I believe—and I’m going to make sure everyone else does.

We’re in the fourth quarter, I have Lexi on the bench—I’m giving her a two-minute rest—we go down, and Lexi’s telling everybody: Don’t worry; we’ve got this.

I put her in with the last six minutes to go. She typically plays center for us, but I made a decision I hadn’t made all year: I pulled her out of center because Alex [Rodriguez, Pomona-Pitzer Head Coach] was making sure she wasn’t going to get any goals. I put her on the perimeter and put Victoria Rose Meek in at center. It gave Lexi a chance to play the perimeter and take some really good outside shots. She ended up scoring the game-tying goal.

With three minutes left, the game is certainly not over. [Alex] called time-out and we knew there was a play coming. We scouted it and I told them: If you stop them three times you’re going to win this game. After the time-out I think we shot-blocked an outside shot.

That solidified in their minds that we can get this done, we just have to play great defense. Sure enough, we stopped them three times.

And that was the game.

– Your daughter Lexi plays for you, and chipped in a team-high 57 goals. What’s it been like coaching Lexi this year?

It has been just a sheer joy having her on the team. Lexi is not a big ego kid. She’s a freshman in water polo but she actually attended Santa Barbara Community College and played half a season of polo before she had to take a medical red-shirt.

I coached her when she was a little girl, starting at 10-years old, and I’ve coached her almost her whole life. I turned her over to high school coaches and I think she had such burnout for the sport that she couldn’t get through her first season at Santa Barbara Community College—they have a great coach up there, Chuckie Roth. He treated her well and I couldn’t thank him enough. But she said that she couldn’t jump into the pool anymore.

She took a year off and became an L.A. County ocean lifeguard. In her high school program she never had more than a week off at a time in her entire four years. They were training five hours a day through Christmas break.

She came to this program after a year off, understanding how volatile sports can be. What makes me proudest is she came in and owned the fact that she was a freshman in sport. She completely respected the seniors, did clean-up after practice that freshman do. She never complained.

The seniors really respected that—and I sure did.

In high school she was the Ventura County Player of the Year, she was league MVP. She was All-American, all-county, all-CIF, all-everything. She never told anybody.

l-rond-clu-may19

Lexie Rond. Photo Courtesy: Cal Lutheran Athletics

The girls really appreciated that and me as a dad, I appreciated that. When it came time to put her in the game, the girls were like: Heck yeah! Lexi needs to play. She’s one of our best players.

Throughout the year, Lexi and Victoria Rose split time. They played about equal minutes. Victoria Rose was great because here you have a two-time All-American and now she’s lost her starting job to a freshman. But they just worked so well together—they help each other in practice, they supported each other. If one of them got a goal, the other one was giving them the high-five. if one of them drew an exclusion, the other was giving high fives.

In this particular game, it was really cool because they both got to be in the game together at the end, which they hadn’t done all year.

– You’ve got a tough match on Tuesday against Pacific. How will you keep your DIII squad from being overtaken by the enormity of facing the Tigers in an NCAA play-in match?

We know it would be a monumental upset but I love the fact that they’re not rolling over. We’re gonna get out there and play the game. We want to win—we want to get to that banquet at Stanford on Friday night.

They have this attitude of: Hey, you’ve got to beat us before you beat us. We’re going to go out there and work really hard. We had a really good practice yesterday, we’ll have one more today. We travel Sunday and we’ll see how it goes.

If we win this, they say: we get another one against Stanford. How cool is that?!