On The Record with Tom Popp of Navy Water Polo

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Tom Popp is literally at the center of all that Navy Water Polo stands for. Photo Courtesy: Phil Hoffmann, Navy Athletics

Editor’s Note: Qualifications for the 2019 USA Water Polo National Junior Olympics are underway. Over the next month hundreds of girls and boys teams in 11 zones all over the U.S. will look to qualify for two sessions of tournament play in Orange County California: Session 1 (12U, 14U, 16U, 18U Boys) from July 20 – 23 and Session 2 (12U, 14U, 16U, 18U Girls) from July 25 – July 28.

Swimming World was recently at the Northeast Zone (NEZ) Qualifications on June 1, 2 at Chelsea Piers in Stamford, Connecticut, where Greenwich Aquatics captured the top spots in all the contested categories—10U (Coed) and girls and boys in 12U, 14U, 16U and 18U. Your correspondent is involved with the Brooklyn Hustle 14U boys team.

STAMFORD, CT. To meet Tom Popp is to appreciate how well the U.S. Naval Academy prepares its graduates. With a ramrod-straight posture and build that suggests—thirty years after he last suited up for the Middies’ water polo team—he could still dominate in the water, Captain Popp epitomizes his service’s fighting fitness.

navyAC_logoBut it’s Popp’s long association with both the sport and the Academy that offers substantial benefits to Navy’s youth program. As a member of Head Coach Luis Nicolao’s staff, one of his responsibilities is to oversee the club—which is essential for the varsity program’s continued good health. Not only are is the club tasked with beating local and regional competitors, but—if properly steeped in the Navy way—it members will help replenish the Middies’ ranks.

This role entirely suits the former Naval Flight Officer who from 2007 – 2009 assisted former head coach Mike Schofield, an association that produced two NCAA tournament appearances. When Nicolao returned to the Naval Academy last year after a career at Princeton that saw his Tigers teams produce over 844 men’s and women’s wins, his first hire was Popp, a former teammate.

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Popp (squatting) is positioned to help Navy polo to improve. Photo Courtesy: Phil Hoffmann

Both were part of Navy’s golden years under Schofield and have the distinction as being two of the three Academy polo players ever awarded the NAAA Sword for athletic excellence—the third being Mike Mulvey, recently hired to join the program’s ranks. Popp is also distinguished as the only Navy man inducted into the Collegiate Water Polo Hall of Fame (2008); Nicolao has yet to be called, likely because he is still actively coaching.

[On The Record with Mike Schofield, Legendary Navy Water Polo Coach Turned Referee]

Now, they all have a new mission: revitalize a youth program that—like Navy’s varsity program—lost its way following Schofield’s 2013 retirement. As the club’s director, Popp is responsible for hiring age group coaches, overseeing outreach and keeping an eye out for talent, both within Navy’s program as well as at clubs competing on the East Coast.

Swimming World spoke with Captain Popp at Chelsea Piers during play at last weekend’s Northeast Zone Junior Olympics qualifiers. He was there with the club’s 14U, 16U and 18U clubs, all whom seek to continue a great tradition of Navy water polo.

– You’re wearing two hats here at JOs; director of the Navy age group water polo program and an assistant coach for Navy men’s water polo.

I’m hired first and foremost as Navy’s assistant coach so I’m always going to have my recruiting eyes open whenever I’m going towards any type of competition. One of the things we’re trying to do is rebuild Navy’s club teams. If we can get some of the best players from the area to come, learn our system as a club, then they can feed into Navy. Then we can also put some guys in other college [programs]. We want to rebuild the girls’ team as well.

We want to get it all down to 10 and unders and build it all the way up to high school and get that to be a strong program again.

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Navy’s Lejeune Hall Pool. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

The premiere programs in the East right now is Greenwich, and the Capitals are doing really well in the younger groups. They’re focused on 14 and unders; we’ve got to get focused all across the board.

We can build up our program and some of those best kids will learn our system and hopefully we can recruit them to the Naval Academy.

– Part of this rebirth of the Navy youth program is due to your efforts as well as the Middies’ head coach, Luis Nicolao, who is one of the most successful coaches in the history of East Coast water polo.

I came on board to coordinate towards the end of our fall season—as Louie’s taken over the head of the club, he’s got the varsity team, he’s been pulled away right now to help with fundraising. His main focus has to be on that varsity team.

[Five Questions for Luis Nicolao, Coach of Navy Men’s Water Polo Team]

But, no matter where we go, we’re always wearing our recruiting hats. We brought in another assistant coach—Mike Mulvey, who I helped coach ten years [ago] when I was with Navy and under Mike Schofield then. I was just a volunteer coach and Mike helped us win a couple of Eastern championships.

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Photo Courtesy: Gerry Lindner

Mike just got hired on—he and his wife [Rhonda] also coach youth [players]—so we’re going to bring them on also to help with our youth team here. So, we can start generating a lot of enthusiasm for our club team. We hope that will feed over so they’ll want to come back and play at Navy.

Everybody loves Louie and wants to come play for him. He’s a winner and a great guy.

If we can get that enthusiasm again, and we’re walking around these venues [like] Chelsea Piers—a great place. We get around to all these East Coast tournaments; we got our club down to the South Florida Tournament, so now we can start recruiting down there.

[At South Florida International Water Polo Tournament, Emphasis is on International]

We’ve got our eyes on all the best players on the East Coast, and we’re making our recruiting out there in the West. Mulvey’s out there this weekend recruiting for.

– You and Coach Nicolao may be from out West but both know your way around Eastern polo.

As we get around, coaches always love to see what other teams are doing—rule changes, how other coaches are adapting. It’s great to be at these venues and show the Navy flag.

We want to create excitement for our club—then maybe with Potomac and Capital, yes they’re competition in the area but we hole they grow to be strong clubs too, because that’s only going to benefit the Baltimore, Washington DC, Virginia area.

We want that to grow. Maybe we can become our own Mid-Atlantic Zone and then we’ll have the Northeast Zone up here. Because, with the teams from New York and Greenwich, the Northeast has grown a lot.