Sign Of The (COVID) Times: La Salle Cuts Men’s Water Polo

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Tom Hyham and his La Salle men's water polo team in better times. Photo Courtesy: La Salle Athletics

In a sign of just how deadly the coronavirus has been to collegiate athletics, on Tuesday La Salle University in Philadelphia announced that it was cutting men’s water polo as a part of clearing out seven NCAA varsity  sports. It is the third varsity polo program that has been eliminated during the months-long pandemic, following Sonoma State and George Washington University, which both eliminated their women’s teams.

[WWPA’s Steve Doten: COVID-19 Killed Women’s Water Polo at Sonoma State]

lasalle-logoIn additional to water polo, La Salle announced that the following programs will sunset after the 2020-2021 academic year: baseball; men’s swimming and diving; men’s tennis; softball; volleyball; and women’s tennis.

The decision, in a statement Tuesday from La Salle Athletic Director Brian Baptiste, was devastating for Tom Hyham, the Explorers’ men’s and women’s coach whose program has been furloughed since mid-March due to Covid-19.

“Not having the fall season was a gut punch; getting yesterday’s news was just a punch across the face,” Hyham said by phone yesterday. “It was shocking, to say the least. And, I’m sure that I haven’t absorbed the news yet. That’s because of the immediate reaction following the news. I found out moments before the athletes did, and immediately after the announcement it was damage control.”

According to Baptiste, the program cuts are necessary to align Explorer athletics with its Atlantic 10 Conference opponents—and not a reflection of wavering in the schools’ commitment to varsity athletics. He said the average A-10 programs features 18 – 19 athletic teams; La Salle cannot continue its current roster of 25 teams and remain competitive. Therefore, the decision was made to trim Explorer offerings to 18.

“Sustaining an athletics department that offers more Atlantic 10-sponsored teams than any other in the conference at a university positioned in the conference’s bottom-quartile in enrollment is not feasible,” Baptiste said. “The rising costs associated with providing a high-quality Division I student-athlete experience and the financial challenges incurred by the department contributed to this decision.”

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Coach Hyham and Isaiah Klein-Cloud in 2019. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

In an open letter to the La Salle community, signed by Baptiste and La Salle President Colleen M. Hanycz. it was noted that this change was not entirely a cost-cutting decision. Given the financial challenges faced by American colleges and universities due to the coronavirus, it’s hard to see otherwise.

Hyham was keen to emphasize that the virus was not the primary culprit in the demise of his men’s program.

“[I]t’s important for me to point out that I don’t think that our men’s program was a victim of Covid,” he said. “The overall assessment of the athletic department would have ended the program regardless of [the virus].”

But, Baptiste—who arrived at La Salle last summer with a mandate to effect institutional change—acknowledged how the coronavirus has affected American college athletics by draining revenue.

“The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic further accelerated the need for this change,” he said.

The unfortunate part—outside of the enormous implications for the La Salle male and female students whose athletic careers are now in limbo—is that the Explorer men appeared to have turned the corner under Hyham’s leadership. After going 9-30 in the program’s first two years under Paul Macht, Hyham arrived in 2018 from Huntington Beach, California, following a successful club coaching career.

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

He and his team endured a 2-23 campaign in 2018—including 15 straight losses, many of the blowout variety—to close out the season. 2019 saw a 6-23 record for the La Salle, which included a 10-8 win over Navy a year ago, the program’s first-ever victory over a Division 1 opponent and first against a rival in the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference (MAWPC).

Thanks to Hyham’s deft recruiting— which resulted in seven freshmen this season, including Kiahi Horan of New Zealand, Veljko Kotarica of Serbia and Tommaso Ramacciotti of Italy—the Explorers were poised for a breakout campaign this fall, until the pandemic postponed all MAWPC competition.

“We knew coming into this year that we needed to fill some small gaps, which was why I reached out to international players,” Hyham said. “It was going to be a transition to a more positive program.”

In an interesting twist, mentioned in the Hanycz and Baptiste open letter, is that the men’s program has a final chance to make its mark. If the Collegiate Water Polo Association holds a men’s season starting next January, the Explorers will play.

It’s a chance at redemption that few programs get—including the Sonoma Sea Wolves and GW Colonials.

For Hyham, who remains in charge of the La Salle women’s program, this is a tantalizing opportunity for his men.

“It’s hugely motivating to know that you only get one more shot,” he said. “If we can keep the team together, we’ll do some great things, whether it’s in an abbreviated season or however it ends up happening.”

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