On The Record with Larry Sanders, New Villanova Women’s Water Polo Coach

Senior Kate Stenmoen will be a key contributor for new Head Coach Larry Sander. Photo Courtesy: Villanova Athletics

When Villanova women’s water polo finished out of the postseason for a second straight year, Wildcat Athletic Director Mark Jackson did not sit around twiddling his thumbs. Out went former Head Coach Rob Mida and in came Larry Sanders to lead the program to better results in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC).

villanova-logoA graduate of UC San Diego—where he was an Honorable Mention All-American for the Tritons in 1987—Sanders was an assistant for the UCSD men for seven season before taking over the women’s polo program, where he coached for 10 seasons (2000 – 2009). In his first year leading the Triton women, they won the Western Water Polo Association title.

From 2012 – 2018 Sanders was head coach for the San Diego State University men’s club program, where he led the Aztecs to the 2017 National Collegiate Club championship.

Earlier this week, Sanders, the first full-time coach in program history, spoke with Swimming World about the learning curve necessary to transition to Eastern polo, joining forces with Tom Hyham, head polo coach at La Salle, and how Villanova men’s basketball is a door-opener for women’s polo.

– You’re new on the scene from San Diego State. How has your adjustment been from West to East and from San Diego to Philly?

That is definitely a question that everyone’s asking; it has to do with the weather. The weather, the weather, the weather!

Most people don’t realize that, not only did I coach, I worked for the city for 32 years as a lifeguard on the beach. I wore shorts every day no matter what the weather was like. You jump into 58º water to save people you get used to the cold stuff. I’m still running around in shorts; even today.

It’s cold, you deal with it. It’s an odd question because I spent my whole life outside. I’m adjusting fine; I did a little playing in the snow last week. I’m sure it could get worse and I haven’t seen that yet. Maybe that’s a better question when it gets really bad!

I spent my whole life in Southern California, so it’s a new experience, a new opportunity. I’m excited for that and just rolling with it.

– I was thinking more in terms of indoor versus outdoor pools and the difference in style of play between coasts.

One of the most important things to recognize is [Villanova] has taken the water polo coaching position from part-time to full-time. That puts me here every day, interacting with the team and with athletics. They’ve upped the budget [and] they’re looking to continue to do that. My responsibilities are to build this program.

I don’t know if you’re aware: we do have basketball here [Laughs]. The athletic director [Mark Jackson] now in his fourth year. said: We’re trying to raise the level of not just basketball by the other 23 sports. We should be striving to do our best, striving to win and be successful.


Larry Sanders. Photo Courtesy: CWPA

When you say East Coast vs. West Coast what you’re seeing in the West is maybe more athletic regarding their ability to get up and down the pool. They usually play in bigger pools; it’s all deep. Here we’re playing more of what seems a half-court game. It’s in a smaller pool so it doesn’t allow for that freedom and the space to move in the pool. You get more of a tighter game—making it more of a contact sport than a movement sport.

I see [Villanova] as an opportunity to not just bring in athletes but to develop them. Tom is at LaSalle and we had a conference call yesterday saying: Hey, we could do a dual game showcase for college water polo. Let’s invite local club kids  to come watch college water polo. You’ve got North Penn High School who won state championships this year, and Wilson High School—a good program where kids are playing.

How do we develop that? Well, we’ve got to be involved in that community. That’s what I see of us coming in here. There’s good college coaches, there’s good high school coaches in the area.

– What does it mean for Philly polo to have two experienced California coaches working in the City of Brotherly Love?

It starts with what I was talking about, doing a showcase game. And then developing kids here in Pennsylvania. Maybe we’re doing some coaching of coaches. Or we’re coming in and doing clinics, helping where we can so what we’re doing is developing water polo.

I see it happening even in Florida or in the Carolinas. They’ve got Eric Gordon who’s now back home in North Carolina. They’re developing water polo there. It’s about reaching down and helping it wherever you can—the drills and schools people need to learn to elevate their game. Then developing the kids that we bring in, and finding those athletic kids that are playing. You do see some kids go West from here, and I think that’s a great thing.

[On The Record with Zak Kappos About Growing Water Polo in South Florida]

Some of the challenges we might have on the East Coast [are like] it used to be for lacrosse; the East was the hot spot. Now you’re seeing lacrosse move across the whole country. I think that water polo’s starting to make that move but it’s not… Texas just picked up its first NCAA varsity program at Austin College. So, you’re starting to see these increments of growth here and there and it’s great for the sport.

[Austin College Men’s Water Polo: New Kid in Town Is Now a Winner]

– The Wildcats have been also-rans in the MAAC the past few years. What will it take for them to finish in the MAAC top four and make the post-season?

One of the key things is: bringing in a full-time coach. Part-time means [the coach] is not here all the time. There’s not enough interaction going on and you’re missing different components from part-time to full-time. Like today; I’m in my office, a kid can stop by. Before, the coach wouldn’t be here, so those interactions change.

We’re bringing a different culture, a different way of doing things. We’ve changed how we do our workouts, our training.


Dominique Clark; one of Wildcat polo greats. Photo Courtesy: Villanova Athletics

The other piece is: Dominique [Clark; 246 goals who graduated in 2018] was a great player. She had a fantastic career here. I met her for the first time last week. [and] it was great to meet her and talk with her about the program.

To replace her we’ll be more team-centered scoring. Multiple players will be involved in the offense. I wasn’t here last year and didn’t watch Villanova polo. I only know from what I’ve heard from the team that [the offense] was centered around Dominique at the 2-meter position.

I wish she were here now because we’d love to have her and she’d fit in perfectly to our team concepts—what we’re doing regarding defense and offense; team culture [and] team chemistry, which builds into working as a team.

– As you look at the season ahead, one MAAC team that stands out: Wagner. Can they be stopped?

I know what I want to do—but I’m not sure that I want to tell the world that. Wagner’s style of play—they went out and beat UC San Diego last year in NCAAs—their style of play is very physical, where they’re big and strong and they push you around. To counteract that you have to be very active. You have to mobile, you have to be moving, you can’t be stagnant and let them hang on you.

[2019 Women’s Water Polo Preview: Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference]

My offense is not center-dominated all the time, so having and creating movement is built in to put pressure on them defensively. And that’s part of [when] you talk about the two different coasts—you could say they’re more physical, more heavy-handed on the East Coast. That’s related to playing in a shallow-deep pool [that’s] small. There’s no space to move and so you can grab on to people; there’s not places to swim or drive to.

We’re trying to be more active in the water and use our movement to help us. We run our defense to help us with our counter attack. I know it’s been an adjustment for my team; and I haven’t really seen the other teams play so [it will be]: Let’s see what we’re doing.

– Because of their success, Villanova is a basketball-first institution. How do you see women’s water polo advancing in the Wildcat athletic culture?

If I say: “Coca-Cola” to you, you go: Oh yeah, Coco-Cola. It’s a name brand. If I say: “Villanova,” you say: I know Villanova, that’s a top-50 school in the country academically. But they got basketball! They’ve won NCAAs two out of the past three years—and probably could have won that middle year if [Phil] Booth wasn’t injured.

I’ll say: There’s other sports too and they’re doing well—and that’s where you start a conversation. I was wearing my Villanova hat in Santa Barbara two-three weeks ago and a lady grabs me and said: Hey, you went to Villanova?! I said: No, but I coach water polo there. She said: My daughter’s playing, she’s in high school and I went to Villanova.

You have all these connections to people just from Villanova. The idea is to let people know that we’ve got a challenge here to elevate the program, and I get to use Villanova basketball as a brand name. And I get to educate people; they see the name, then they ask [about the school] and I get to answer. We’re a DI school which has had some great success in basketball.

That attracts a different kind of kid, one that recognizes Villanova is an athletic school. You’ve got to be ready to commit to playing. It’s a big shift what’s happening [here now]. I know a couple of kids who’ve graduated who’ve said: I knew I was going to Villanova to play water polo but the commitment wasn’t as great. That’s part of the change; finding athletes who are committed to being the best that they can.

You’ve also got to come here and do well academically. That’s part of the process.


Sophomore Malia Gacutan will be counted on in 2019. Photo Courtesy: Villanova Athletics

There’s three things going on here; are you being the best student, the best athlete, the best person you can be? Villanova fits those things, especially with their ideal that they’re here to serve others—part of our Augustinian tradition. That fits into my coaching philosophy, so it worked out really well.

– Clearly, your arrival in Philadelphia represents a commitment from your Athletic Director to elevate polo at Villanova.

Mark was an Associate Athletic Director at USC, and his philosophy is that basketball is fantastic, and to acknowledge that and put that at the forefront, but we want our other [athletic] programs to get out there and showcase what they can do.

When I interviewed I asked him what he was looking for [water polo] to do and he said: We want to raise all our programs to be successful. That’s what I needed to hear, and we going to continue to move forward. We started at bringing me on full-time, then we move on to budget for assistant coaches, funding for scholarships, those sorts of things.

So, now our challenge is in the conference. We finished fifth last year. Can we finish higher than that and get at least to conference championships? That’s a question we’ll answer over the course of the next couple of months.

1 comment

  1. avatar

    I am sure you will be a great coach for them.
    Send me a hat I will wear it.
    Love Dad.