On The Record with Tom Hyham, Head Coach, La Salle Men’s and Women’s Water Polo

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After a successful West Coast career, Tom Hyham picks La Salle. Photo Courtesy: T. Hyham

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

Tom Hyham, now leading one of the East’s more intriguing water polo programs, is ready for big challenges. A Californian for almost of his entire life, last August Hyham undertook a major life change. Saying goodbye to a successful age group coaching gig with the Huntington Beach Water Polo Club, he and his wife Karla packed up the minivan and followed their children across the country—all for the love of polo.

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Both Hyham daughters play on NCAA varsity squads; Kali is a sophomore at Bucknell in Lewisburg, PA, and Marina is a freshman at Marist in Poughkeepsie, NY. Dad took a different route, moving this season into the top spot for the men’s and women’s teams at La Salle University in Philadelphia

His is no easy task. Launched by Paul Macht three years ago, the Explorers have thus far lagged behind their competition. On the men’s side Wagner polo—a member of the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference (MAWPC) started at the same time as La Salle—played for an NCAA berth in 2017, only the Seahawks second year of existence. La Salle’s men have posted an 11-53 record—including 2-23 in Hyham’s first season—and have an even worse mark for its women; a lone victory over two seasons.

If the La Salle coach is daunted by these challenges, it was not apparent when Swimming World spoke with him at the 2018 MAWPC Championships a week ago. After a competitive match against Navy—albeit a loss—Hyham spoke about switching coasts, the obstacles he faces leading Explorer polo and what it will take to attract the talent necessary to successfully grow polo in Philadelphia.

– You’re a West Coast guy who’s now in the East. What was it that sparked this bi-costal move?

Actually, it was always about polo. Four or five years ago my wife said to me: Why don’t you become a college coach?

I said [that] you don’t just become a college coach; you can’t just say: I want to coach this team.

But it resonated that I wanted to coach at the next level. Once my youngest daughter finished high school, it seemed easier to leave California. We tossed around the idea of a few places, and the East Coast became a viable option. Then the jobs opened up. We figured if I could get hired there we could make it work.

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Kayla + Tom Hyham on the go. Photo Courtesy: T. Hyham

My daughters being out here helped, but I don’t think that would have caused me not to come out here. I wanted to coach at [the college] level.

– There was also a job opening at Whittier.

The funny thing about the Whittier job is the Huntington Beach Water Polo Club—which I was coaching at out in California—one of our club’s other age group coaches was a finalist for the job [that went to David Kasa].

I had no interest in staying in California. Having seen my daughter [Kali] play on the East Coast last year, I became more interested in the level of play and different qualities of [Eastern polo]—different than the California grind.

It’s good water polo, but it’s also kids that, they don’t let [water polo] define them. There’s a good mix out here that I like more than California.

– You ended up in Philadelphia—a stark contrast to Huntington Beach.

My wife and I were both raised in California—we went to the same high school together—and we’ve been Southern California people for just about our whole lives. But we wanted a change; something pretty drastic. And this Philadelphia move is drastic, to say the least. [Laughs].

We’ve enjoyed every single minute of it so far.

– Three years after La Salle launched men’s and women’s teams, a lot of work remains to get the Explorers up to the level of their competition.

That’s exactly right, and a lot of it has to do with building the program. Paul did a great job—[given] how quickly they started the program at La Salle compared to the players that we have right now.

His hands were tied as far as what players he could get, so we don’t have the highest level of player that we should necessarily have right now. But we have a good level of players.

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La Salle’s Cole Strohson focused against Navy. Photo Courtesy: CWPA

The other side of it is, they’re improving significantly. This last game that we had here [against Navy] was our barometer. That showed us where we have come from where we started. We lost the game, but the guys left feeling pretty good.

Over the next few years, recruiting is going to be a big focus—that we get a couple of good, solid recruits a year. This year will be the beginning of my stint with this. That and building on the foundation we already have.

– Given your previous connection to one of the country’s best age group clubs, how possible will it be to draw California talent East—given that top players are likely to stay West for the top programs?

For an East Coast coach looking for players, those are the players that you’re looking for—the ones that aren’t going to go to your top four [Cal, Stanford, UCLA, USC]. You want to make sure that you’re focusing on the next four after that; those are the players that are going to have a high skill level, can still be coached, and—if we’re talking about California [players]—they bring in a different culture.

And I don’t say “different” as if it’s bad. I think the culture in California works—so that’s one of my things here, to bring that level out East. Once we establish that, and get that built into our program, it will be more attractive to some of the California players that we’re not getting right now.

Coming from Huntington Beach Water Polo Club—one of the [country’s] better clubs—that built my foundation, and that’s the attitude that I want to bring to both our men’s and women’s programs.

– There is a local talent pool around Philadelphia that tends to get over-looked. Given your background in California, how will you plug into this base?

The key with local talent is, you have to make yourself visible. When someone says to a kid: What do you think of La Salle’s water polo program?—you don’t want the answer to be: What’s a La Salle?

Being present is important; I go to the state championships for both the private and public schools to make sure I’m being seen. They deserve that respect. Being from California, I know there’s talent out here. In fact, out of my recruiting pool this year, it’s primarily Pennsylvania kids, [along with] a kid from Canada.

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Laying the groundwork for success. Photo Courtesy: T. Hyham

But it’s more of an oversight for people to not look at that talent. Pennsylvania’s one of the biggest areas for water polo outside of California. And the coaching’s getting better out [here]—you can see that with the kids. I’ve got quite a few kids from Pennsylvania on my team [four] and kids from Maryland—kids from all over the East Coast.

Florida’s another area’s that untapped. That’s really key: identifying those kids who fly under the radar.

– You arrived in August to take over an Explorers’ men’s program that was jumping from a conference that includes DII and DIII teams to one that has some of the top polo programs in the East. How prepared were you for that transition?

We knew that coming in. Moving from the [MAWPC] West to the East was no surprise. It was going to be tougher competition. We approached our entire program as a two-year plan. We’re transitioning into the Eastern conference right now. If we can start knocking off those bottom four teams; as we see right now, we’re getting closer to them, the remainder of next year is building up.

Will we be a championship team next year? I don’t think that’s likely, but possibly—depending upon who we get in. It’s a two-year plan in that we don’t expect to come in and have an impact right away, but we do expect to have impact over a period of 24 months.

– A formula for success in the East had been to bring in a talented European player who is eager to get an education in America. Is that an option for your recruiting?

International players, specifically the Europeans, they’re tougher to get considering where we’re at right now. Paul had to build the program, which cost some money. As we start freeing up some of our money we’ll be able to get more talent from those areas. Most European players don’t want to come over for free. They need athletic aid.

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Adding European players like Rade Joksimovic is a formula for success. Photo Courtesy: Alan Storey

Once I’m in a position to be able to provide more of that, that will be a main focus also.

There’s no shortage of players that want to come over here and play. That is really the formula for a lot of teams that are playing out here today—bring in a couple of good players from Europe. It changes the whole landscape of your team.

The other thing about the teams out here brining in the talent—whether it be international or not—is there’s some great coaching. You’ve got Louie [Nicolao] who’s fantastic; John McBride [at Bucknell]; I could go through all of the coaches; there’s good coaching on the East Coast. You bring in talent and match it with the coaching that goes with it—that finishes up the recipe for making a good team.