On The Record with Taylor Dodson, Indiana Head Women’s Water Polo Coach

BLOOMINGTON, IN - March 01, 2019 - Goalkeeper Mary Askew #1 of the Indiana Hoosiers during the match against the Salem Tigers at the Aquatic Center in Bloomington, IN. Photo By Amelia Herrick/Indiana Athletics
Last Sunday Mary Askew stood tall in first-ever win for Taylor Dodson, Indiana's new head coach. Photo Courtesy: Amelia Herrick/Indiana Athletics

When Indiana women’s water polo, winless on its opening day, beat #11 Pacific last Sunday, it was not just another surprising early season result. The 13-5 victory, in which Tina Doherty collected three goals and the #20 Hoosiers pulled away in the fourth quarter, was the first-ever for Taylor Dodson, Indiana’s new coach.

indiana-logoThe win is likely the first of many—Sunday the Hoosiers also beat Marist 10-8—as Dodson plots a new course for a program that floundered in 2019, its first in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF).

[Jump to MPSF is “Game Changer” for Indiana Women’s Water Polo]

Later this season, Dodson will be lead her squad into MPSF play against the country’s best teams, a challenge she relishes. A winner everywhere she’s been—from Laguna Beach High School, where she starred on a CIF-winning team in 2009, to Cal, where the Golden Bears in 2010 went to their only national championship, to New York City as an assistant coach for Wagner from 2015-17—the new Hoosier coach, not yet 30, brings an impressive resume to a job she assumed last summer when Ryan Castle’s contract was not renewed.

February 2, 2019; Avery Aquatic Center, Palo Alto, CA, USA; Collegiate Women's Water Polo: Stanford Invitational: Indiana University Hoosiers vs Stanford University Cardinals; Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne

Indiana’s Taylor Dodson. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

As happens in any successful athlete’s life, Dodson’s family was key to her rapid ascent up polo’s coaching ranks. Her father Trevor was an All-American at UC Irvine and part of the 1982 team that went 30-0 and defeated Stanford for the national championship. Like Dodson, brothers Jack and Spencer played at Laguna Beach; Jack went on to compete for Long Beach State while Spencer followed his father to UCI.

Earlier this week, Swimming World spoke with Dodson about the impressive coaching tree she descends from—including UC Irvine’s Ted Newland, Cal’s Rich Corso and Wagner’s Chris Radmonivic—and how lessons learned in a life steeped in polo have resulted in a prized coaching opportunity at one of America’s legendary universities.

– You’ve played for and worked with a who’s who of prominent American coaches.

I’ve been fortunate to be around a lot of great coaches, from all levels. I’ve also had the opportunity to not only to learn from Rich (Corso) and Matt Flesher, who was our assistant coach the whole time I was at Cal. Maureen O’Toole was a volunteer assistant there. With Chris Radmonovich and also with opportunities I’ve had with the international system, getting to go to the World University Games under Dan Klatt, being part of the youth team system for the last couple of summers with Ethan Danko.

I’ve had a lot of great influences. With each opportunity, I didn’t necessarily have a plan to be a head coach in five years. That opportunity has definitely shined on me.

In thinking about that I wanted the IU program to look like, I drew on all the experiences that I’ve had in various programs from high school, to club to college. I tried to pull what I liked from different coaches and tweak it and make it my own.

While I respect every coach that I’ve worked with, sometimes their way of doing things isn’t the way that I want to do things. Learning that throughout the different opportunities was valuable, so that I didn’t have [a lot of] trial by error.

It’s funny because I tell my team now: “Rich always used to tell us X, Y, Z, and Matt would tell us this.” I didn’t even realize all the terminology that I picked [up], certain sayings—and now I catch myself saying them. And I can hear them so vividly in my head, yelling the same things at practice or saying the same things at meetings.

I learned a lot for a lot of people and I’m really grateful for every opportunity because— had all the pieces not been a part of my journey, I don’t know that it would have led me here.

– And you were born to it! Your dad played at UC Irvine under legendary coach Ted Newland, and was part of the 1982 team that went undefeated on its way to an NCAA title.

I have two younger brothers, and growing up in Orange County with a dad that played college water polo, won a national championship and had an undefeated season—naturally we grew up swimming. We played a lot of sports but when the three of us realized we were good and we liked the pool but we didn’t like chasing a line, we got steered into water polo. And obviously fell in love with it.

John Vargas, Stanford

Stanford’s John Vargas. Photo Courtesy: Shumesa Mohsin

Water polo was never forced upon us, but my dad had such a passion for it. He ended up coaching us in age group; he coached me in 12U and 14U. Over the weekend I was talking to him on our way home from our first games and we were talking about defense. He didn’t give me advice as a 13-year-old [like]: You gotta score this way, you gotta do this!

The biggest thing I took from him was: Don’t let your girl score.  As I was telling him the story he said he forgot he told me that.

[At UC Irvine] he got to experience some of the best water polo coaching our country has ever seen. He goes back to UCI games; a lot of his best friends now were his old teammates. John Vargas, the men’s head coach at Stanford, was his college roommate, so he sees Johnny all the time.

[Passages: Ted Newland, Coach Emeritus of UC Irvine Men’s Water Polo, Passes Away at 91]

I didn’t realize when I was 15 doing lap swim with my dad and John Vargas that them talking about water polo and teams and players that it was going to have an impact on me now—but it did.

– The teams that you played on at Cal, and some of your opponents, included some of the Golden Bears’ best-ever players.

My freshman year at Cal probably—actually all four years had a big impact on me. It was a roller coaster but I value the highs and the lows equally. My first year at Cal we had a group of seniors—Camille Hewko, Stephanie Schnugg, Erin Scully, Meghan Corso—and they had been through the ringer their first first three years, just barely missing out at NCAAs. I remember my junior year of high school going to watch them at San Diego State in the MPSF tournament and they lost to [the Aztecs]. I remember talking to Rich afterwards and he said: You know, sometimes you’ve got through hell to get to heaven.

Then to be there as a freshman—every game being molded by these girls who were so hungry and who really valued my class being there. We were strong, we had Dana Ochsner, a center from Oceanside who was a two-time All-American.

The seniors brought us in and wasted no time in trying to catch us up—which was huge for our development. It made us feel that we were the last part of the puzzle.

I remember feeling so lost every single day—the weight room, the pool, just feeling behind. But my first year, in 2010, we qualified for NCAAs and win the third-place game—something that was program-changing.

Having someone like Emily Csikos, who is of no great stature, but her attention to detail, her anticipation, her knowledge of the game—being able to do things that no one else could because she was always one step ahead.

[It] was so awful in practice because she would just crush you, but I learned so much from her.

– You move from a Cal program just hitting its stride to the East Coast and a Wagner program that established itself as one of the region’s best.

Chris built something really special there. A school in that conference has its own set of adversity that would be hard for any sport at any level. He found what worked—the type of athletes who would do well in that environment.

BLOOMINGTON, IN - March 01, 2019 - Utility Izzy Manadema #8 of the Indiana Hoosiers during the match against the Salem Tigers at the Aquatic Center in Bloomington, IN. Photo By Amelia Herrick/Indiana Athletics

Indiana’s Izzy Manadema. Photo Courtesy: Amelia Herrick/Indiana Athletics

One thing special about the program that doesn’t get highlighted—[Wagner] consistently has the highest GPA in women’s water polo year-in and year-out. Those girls are really smart!

One thing I learned from Chris is being really clear in your values and being unwavering in your expectations. He has a military background, and you can tell that when you get into the inner workings of the program.

[Radmonovich Steps Down After Nine Superb Years Leading Wagner Water Polo]

As an assistant coach, by the second year it made things simpler for me. Everyone talks about communication; in a time where someone asked me a question, I knew how he thought, so I could more easily give an answer.

Those girls knew exactly what the expectations were—and there was no wavering in that.

The athletes there ate it up. There was some resistance at first but once they could see that the system is in place to be successful, it just steamrolled by itself—and creates its own legacy.

You can see it now; that program, with all the disadvantages it has, there’s still something really special about that Wagner team.

– At Indiana, you’ve take on a monumental task; get the Hoosiers to be competitive in the toughest water conference in the country.

Circling back on past coaching and playing experiences, in taking over the program in this summer, I thought a lot about what I wanted it to look like—knowing that our conference is quite daunting. I think it’s important that you start everything with the end in mind. I put pressure on myself knowing that I have an opportunity personally and professionally to help the sport.

The same four teams being in the Final Four every year is really boring. The reason people love March Madness is because of the upsets, because of the parity that shows up at that time of year. I’m in an opportunity where I can help create more parity.

It’s not overnight, it’s not even in a year. It’s trying to get better every single day.

BLOOMINGTON, IN - FEBRUARY 20, 2019 - Driver Juli Hilovsky #2 of the Indiana Hoosiers during the match between the Indiana Hoosiers and the McKendree Bearcats at Counsilman-Billingsley Aquatic Center in Bloomington, IN. Photo By Missy Minear/Indiana Athletics

Indiana’s Tina Doherty. Photo Courtesy: Missy Minear/Indiana Athletics

With student athletes, there’s so much more… you can’t only get better at pressure passing or field blocking. They need to get better on their time management, knowing about nutrition for their bodies or scheduling their classes. On our team, we have a lot of conversations about: What did you get better at today—inside and outside the water. Because all of those pieces need to be work together for us to successful in the water.

We’re literally land-locked from a water polo standpoint, but in the fall we took a trip to Italy which was fantastic. But, they’re playing with Italian rules, you’ve got the Italian coaches wrecking our games.

It was a very different experience then say fall scrimmages at Irvine or at Harvard. I was feeling that we were games behind. We’re a really young team, and there’s few things that replace playing experience.

To come out the way we did [last weekend]—I wasn’t surprised but if you were to say we were going to win two games last weekend, it wouldn’t have been both of the games last Sunday.

– As you go through your season, what is the consistent message for you and your players as you prepare for MPSF play?

The biggest thing I take from how we’re going to get better inside the water is: controlling what we can control. We talk about that a lot—controlling things as a team. From a statistical standpoint, we’re giving up far too many penalties. We’ve got a goalie—Mary Askew—who stopped three out of five penalties against Marist. By the fifth one, I wasn’t even worried about the call, because I knew Mary was gonna block it.

Between that and 10 turnovers a game, right now we’re leaving a lot of scoring opportunities for other teams in the pool. Last year we struggled to score; this year we haven’t struggled yet. Limiting our mistakes and our opponents’ opportunities is definitely my message going forward this season.

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