St. Francis Brooklyn’s Alana Burgess; From the Sunny Shores of San Diego to the Bustling Streets of Brooklyn Heights

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Alana Burgess during her time playing for the San Diego State Aztecs. Photo Courtesy: San Diego State Athletics

Joining a wave of West Coast water polo coaches that have recently washed up on Eastern shores—including Tom Hyham in La Sale, Dusty Litvak in Princeton and Larry Sanders at Villanova—is Alana Burgess, who was recently named an assistant to Bora Dimitrov, the St. Francis Brooklyn interim women’s coach.

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A native of San Diego who played polo under her father Randy at Coronado High School and then at San Diego State from 2009 – 2012, Burgess arrived in Brooklyn Heights last November eager to experience all that the Northeast has to offer—though maybe not polo play in shallow/deep indoor pools that emphasizes physical play. When a coaching change opened up a spot on the St. Francis Brooklyn women’s staff, Burgess jumped at the chance to work with Dimitrov, who has coached the Terrier men the past two seasons. Both are preparing the SFC women for a rigorous season of non-conference and Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference play which opens this weekend at the 2019 Bruno Classic.

[2019 Women’s Water Polo Preview: Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference]

Now comfortably ensconced in the particular conditions of St. Francis’ compact campus just over the East River from Manhattan, Burgess spoke about leaving sunny San Diego, the Terriers’ unique aquatics facility, their chances against a tough field of MAAC opponents and why the East is no longer the least when it comes to NCAA women’s varsity polo.

– You come from San Diego, where the weather is always perfect, and the polo is pretty good too! How have you adjusted to life in Brooklyn Heights, where the weather changes all the time?

Indoor pools are not super foreign to me but that’s not what you’re typically working with in California. I’m used to being on the pool deck and getting a tan—shifting for the sun.

Moving here in the middle of winter and working on deck at an indoor pool; coaching-wise, it’s the same. but pool time is definitely very different—especially here at St. Francis, they keep the pool occupied throughout the whole day. It’s a money-maker but also there’s access to the community. Right now senior swim is going on, so that’s a great thing for the community.

I would say the biggest change is not indoors versus outdoors; it’s the size and availability of the pool.

– Given the heavy usage of the pool is there time and space for one-on-one work with individual athletes? And, is that part of your responsibilities under Coach Dimtrov?

Yes, that’s still possible. There’s lots of things that could be done off-deck working with individual players. Whether it be film or just chalk talks that can happen and then we can put that in place next time we have the pool space. As of now it hasn’t been a huge impact.

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Randy Burgess, a an accomplished water polo coach at San Diego’s Coronado High School, and his prized pupil; his daughter Alana. Photo Courtesy:

Every time you’re working with a new coach you have to adjust your coaching style, especially as an assistant and it’s me getting to know Bora and his expectations and serving as someone to balance him out, whether that be working with a group of players that are getting less attention because of a drill going on or calming Coach down when he gets heated.

It’s a balancing act being an assistant.

I’m learning a lot from him and I like the way that he works with the players, [given] that it’s his first couple of months with the girls’ program. Coming off that boys’ season he’s transitioned really well.

– You’re now accustomed to walking four flights of stairs down to the St Francis pool but what was your first reaction when you saw the new coaching conditions you’d be working in?

It initially reminded me of the dungeon that’s at the Naval Academy. It’s also underground and the last thing you’d expect to find [at the Academy].

I think we have two basketball courts above us; as I walk around I’m just amazed at how everything fits into this space. Besides walking inside from 12º weather into a really humid pool space, which is shocking, nothing too different. We’re there to play water polo.

I’ve heard that the environment, especially being in the indoor pool, can get quite loud. I’m excited for our first home games!

– You are as close as possible to your teammates and your opponents.

I haven’t been in a game situation here so I don’t know what it looks like exactly—I can only imagine. But, when you’re in those situations you use that to your advantage. You get everyone from campus to come to your games and you make sure that they’re loud and cheering for you. you try and make that other team nervous.

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All calm on the Terrier front. Photo Courtesy: St. Francis Athletics

I definitely been in situations in other pools—Long Beach State for example the stands are right next to the pool.  You can really have your fans get into the opponents’ face. It can serve as a positive distraction for your team if you want it to.

– You’re new to Eastern polo, but you have likely faced MAAC opponents in the past. Any thoughts about the upcoming conference schedule and what you expect will be key for the Terriers going into the new season?

We played Wagner almost every year at UC San Diego’s Triton Invite. That’s one of the first tournaments of the year. Besides that maybe Marist would visit us occasionally when we’d host the Aztec Invitational. Coach [Carin] Crawford would try to get as many East Coast teams out here as possible—and mix up the competition for ourselves.

So I do have some experience with Marist and some experience with Wagner.

When I was in college and we would see an East Coast School on our schedule we would be so excited to play a new team. We  went into these games knowing  that their competition at home is probably not as strong as on the West Coast. But, those teams continued to challenged us and other west coast schools. they shouldn’t be overlooked.

Our goal is to get St. Francis in the mix with West Coast teams so that they won’t overlook [us] and maybe fear to play us one day.

That’s the goal of East Coast water polo.

– Wagner has certainly established that for their program—but that’s been a progression over the last seven years. Can you fast-track this by bringing in an exceptional player or is it a slow grind?

It’s changing expectations for the program. It’s year-by-year, and starting now, working the girls hard and letting them know that beating teams like Wagner is a possibility. Our first goal is to make that conference tournament—we need to be top-four order to do that—the next goal is to go to NCAA. Those are all doable of we break it down.

The first thing is changing the expectations within the team, getting their confidence level up and reminding them that they deserve to be here.

At the end of the day these teams are beatable—especially given our pool situation.

– You enjoyed success at San Diego State, with winning records all four years as an Aztec, then serving as a graduate assistant to Coach Crawford. How will that experience translate for the Terriers, who have not qualified for their conference tournament in almost a decade?

Coach did a good job reinforcing basic fundamentals—stuff that you work on at every level. We worked hard—we had double days a lot—we were strong but always falling back on those fundamentals when we were tired. That’s what led her to a lot of success in her coaching career.

We never made NCAAs when I was an athlete. We were in MPSF, we were competitive; we typically finished top eight. She kicked our butts but kept it really simple and let us roll with our creativity.

She recruits very well; she recruits a lot of strong girls out of California and she got some good girls out of Florida and Chicago as well—girls that could create on their own. She’d let us run with that.

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Burgess on Senior Day with dad Randy, mom Claire and Coach Carin Crawford. Photo Courtesy: San Diego State Athletics

Coach definitely put confidence in us to be our own players. It was a very positive experience playing for her at San Diego.

– As a high school coach at The Menlo School in the Bay area, you were likely advising players about where they might find the next level of competition. What sort of California player would fit in well at St. Francis?

I’ve learned a lot about recruiting from my fellow coaches back in the California [high school circuit] and others I’ve come in contact with. You pick and choose from their philosophies. The thing that’s always stuck with me is you have this triangle of athletics, academics and social life. If you can hit all three of those that’s the school for you. It’s awesome if you can get two out of three.

The cool thing about St. Francis is, it’s a Division I program, it’s a smaller campus with a strong sense of community and we’re located in the middle of Brooklyn Heights, right by Manhattan with tons of job opportunities. Therefore, I think it’s an easy school to sell, and if there’s a kid who can thrive in a smaller campus like this, they can be very successful playing for the Terriers.

If they want to play DI and don’t want to ride the bench at a top program, they can really develop here and bring that program with them as they grow stronger.

Is water polo in New York well known? No, but it’s growing and there’s a lot of good programs where you can become the athlete that you want to be and get the academics and the career opportunities that you benefit from in this city.

I wish I was a little more open-minded when I was 17 and signing a national letter of intent—just to have explored [other programs]. I’m very happy to have gone to San Diego State… but I never even thought about the East Coast as an option.

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