Serving Two Masters: College Athletes Represent USA at FINA Men’s Water Polo World Cup

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Dylan Woodhead's name in lights - for the first time with Team USA. Photo Courtesy: M.Randazzo

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

In an interesting twist to the start of the 2018 NCAA men’s varsity season, last week four college athletes—Johnny Hooper of Cal, Jack Turner of UC San Diego, Ben Hallock and Dylan Woodhead of Stanford—left their teams to represent their country at the FINA Men’s Water Polo World Cup 2018 in Berlin.

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This is highly unusual and became entirely necessary given the tournament schedule—six matches in six days—and the proposed rule changes that the FINA Technical Water Polo Committee experimented with during match play. Having fresh players available was essential to remain competitive; the collegiate quartet were important contributors for U.S. Head Coach Dejan Udovicic.

Prior to and during cup play, Swimming World spoke with key stakeholders including: Adam Wright, UCLA head coach, whose goalie Alex Wolf was slated to go but ultimately did not make the trip; John Vargas, Stanford head coach who graciously released Hallock and Woodhead; Alex Rodriguez, assistant U.S. men’s coach who while in Berlin last weekend missed the biggest win in his college’s team’s history when Pomona-Pitzer beat #10 UC Irvine; and Udovicic, the beneficiary of the largess from Vargas, Cal’s Kirk Everist and UC. San Diego’s Denny Harper.

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Adam Wright, Head Coach, UCLA Men’s and Women’s Water Polo Teams

– You have three top players from your conference who won’t be playing state-side next week because they’ll be in Europe representing their country.

It’s tough. Yesterday Cal played UOP without Hooper—and won. They did a nice job.

It’s a scheduling thing, too. It’s not so often that happens. We do have to support our national team. We have guys there now with [Alex] Roelse and [Max] Irving.

At this juncture we were anticipating Wolf would be gone but he’s here with us.

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Alex Wolf defending the UCLA cage in 2017 NCAA tournament. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

The hard part is, in the college landscape, one game could be the difference in everything. So it becomes a push and a pull.

At some level, at some point, either everybody’s got to do it or there’s got to be some sort of change to the structure. If a given program’s not going to support [the national team] then there’s got to be a change.

It becomes difficult if you’re able to pick and choose when you want your guys there and when you don’t.  Because that makes it hard on the other institutions. Vargas is going to lose Hallock and Woodhead.

If we’re not all on the same playing field it makes it tough and makes decisions even more difficult.

Again, it’s a unique situation this year with the timing of the tournament.

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Alex Rodriguez, Assistant Coach, U.S. Men’s Senior National Team

– You’ve got four college players on the roster for this tournament.

As a country, we are not in control of the FINA schedule. As USA Water Polo we would never want to interfere with the college season.

That being said, this tournament is here and Dylan has been in our system for a while, and he’s a potential for us. We were excited to give him the opportunity in this tournament to play,

Ben Stevenson has had to work his butt off to get here. He’s played in Australia, he’s always been outside the mix [for the national team], so I’m interested to see how he’s doing.

Jack Turner’s new to the program and has been sacrificing a lot coming down to San Diego for training We had an opportunity for him to play in this tournament and we’re excited to give him that reward.

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John Vargas, Head Coach, Stanford Men’s Water Polo Team

– What do you make of a situation where your best player goes to Europe just as the season starts?

This is unusual but Dejan had talked to us a year ago about this possibility. So we changed our schedule a bit to accommodate the national team.

– You were once the national team coach, so you more than most college coaches understand just how important it is to have the best players available. But, you’re fighting for a spot in NCAAs, how does this situation affect you?

It’s a big sacrifice for sure. But we’re going to make it work because it’s the right thing to do so we’re gonna do it.

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Dylan Woodhead. Photo Courtesy: Bryan Williams

It’s a goal for Ben and Dylan to be on the national team and try to make the Olympic team. This is part of the process and we’re trying to make both work. To do what they need to do or Stanford to be at a high level, as well as realize their dreams with the national team too.

– For Dylan Woodhead, this experience represents the chance of a lifetime. What will it like for him to play in Europe with the U.S. national team?

We’ve had discussion with him about how he should handle this with maturity and humility. This is a big deal and we think it’s a great experience for him to learn a lot, and to be able to come back and use that experience to help us get better.

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Dejan Udovicic, Head Coach, U.S. Men’s Senior National Team

– You’ve got four college kids here; this is something that has not typically happened during the NCAA men’s varsity season. For them, this is the thrill of a lifetime.

First, I need to thank John Vargas for letting them play. [Ben Hallock and Dylan Woodhead] came one day after the team. It’s huge [for them]. Dylan was [training] with us for the last two and a half years, so I thought this was a good location to test him if we were going to seriously consider him as an option for 2020. If you’re looking at the quads calendar it seems that we’ve got time, but we’ve got plenty to do.

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Alex Rodriguez & Dejan Udovicic. Photo Courtesy: Wasserballecke.de

But if you’re looking seriously, we don’t have time. We don’t have so many quality international tournaments where you can test some of them. This is one of the occasions.

I believe in Dylan, he is a talented guy, he needs to work for sure, but his approach, work ethic, right now is showing us that we need to invest in him.

What’s good for us is this is the last stage that we can have [younger players] more with us, while others will finish what they’re doing in school, at least it will be in December.

Right now, it’s where we are. But I’m sure—as we discussed at the Cutino Awards—we have so much talent, we need to work together. And now this phase is coming for us. And I have no doubt that we’re going to reach a level that is important to face every team in the world.

Are we going to win or not? It depends upon the situation in every game. But we’re capable to play with them and we are well prepared, so I don’t have doubts whatsoever.