How water polo coaches at USC and UCLA are handling overlapping seasons
Adam Wright tells his teams “the only way is through.” The UCLA men’s and women’s water polo head coach usually means success comes only through work, effort or time. Last month, it meant going through a snow storm.
After the men’s team opened its season at a tournament in Berkeley on Jan. 23-24, the team bus bound for Los Angeles was rerouted when a storm closed Interstate 5 at the Grapevine. The Bruins, unable to fly because of COVID-19 protocols, left at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday and didn’t get back to campus until 5:30 a.m. on Monday. The women’s team had practice at 8 a.m.
Wright made sure to be there.
“I wouldn’t want it any other way,” said Wright, who drove home, slept for two hours and returned to join the women’s team after warmups.
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While the men’s and women’s programs at UCLA and USC reprise their roles as perennial NCAA title favorites, their coaches are handling a delicate balancing act. The pandemic realigned the NCAA sports schedule and caused an overlap of men’s and women’s water polo seasons.
The men’s season, which typically takes place in the fall, began on Jan. 16 and will end in mid-March. USC started the season ranked No. 1, but is in a three-way tie with UCLA and California for No. 2 after the teams each went 2-2 in the round-robin tournament in Berkeley. (Stanford is ranked No. 1).
The women can begin competition this month and continue until May. The Trojans, who were ranked No. 1 when the 2020 season was stopped, topped the preseason poll, while UCLA and Stanford tied for second. The Bruins were No. 2 in the polls last season when play was halted in March.
The two-month overlap creates chaos for staffs that share personnel between programs at their respective schools. Wright, who has been the head coach of both UCLA’s men’s and women’s programs since July 2017, spends six or seven straight hours on the pool deck on most days between back-to-back men’s and women’s practices.
The Trojans have one staff for both programs: The three full-time coaches — head coach Marko Pintaric, associate head coach Casey Moon and assistant coach Connor Virjee — work with student assistant coach Jeremy Davie and volunteer assistant Sasha Bucur. Days start with 7:30 a.m. COVID-19 testing and can include morning practices for both teams, a window of office time that includes scheduling, practice planning, scouting and recruiting, then evening practices for both teams. Coaches don’t get home until 8 or 9 p.m.
“As long as I’m in this position, I’m willing to do anything for these student-athletes,” Pintaric said.
The long hours can mean sacrifices for the coaches. Pintaric often preaches the importance of mind, body and soul to his players, but his personal workout time seems to have disappeared nowadays.
Pintaric also has two sons at home. Moon, a 13-year assistant at USC, has a 3-year-old daughter. Going from spending every hour at home during quarantine to seeing his daughter for just an hour or so every night while putting her to bed has been an adjustment for Moon.
At work, Wright, a father of two, prioritizes in-person time with his players. Instead of spending hours studying game film by himself, he makes an effort to be present for practice.
If there’s anyone who can handle the work load, it’s Wright, said Roxy Wheaton, a junior attacker on the women’s team.
“As teams, the men’s and women’s programs just have so much trust in him knowing that if he is doing something else, we know that it’s for our benefit,” Wheaton said.
With dedicated full-time assistants for each team, Wright can lean on his staff for help. Assistants Christopher Lee and James Robinson lead the women’s team in warmups if Wright isn’t able to get to practice immediately. Associate head coach Jason Falitz takes over head coaching duties for the men’s team when Wright can’t as the Bruins hope to return to the NCAA tournament after missing it for the first time since 2013 last year. Director of operations Michael Hull organizes logistics and travel for both squads.
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“It would be impossible without them,” Wright said.
Both Wright and Pintaric emphasized the trust they have in their staffs that makes them feel comfortable handing off certain tasks. Wright’s assistants take care of more recruiting calls and scouting reports than ever. Pintaric is awed by his staff’s team-first character.
But Moon said Pintaric can still be guilty of “wearing the head coach hat too often and for too long.”
“We keep reminding him, if there’s extra busy work, he doesn’t need to do it,” Moon said. “But I know Pinta and I’ve known him for a long time and that’s not who he is.”
Staff and players know Pintaric to have the ideal mix of selflessness and relentless work ethic to lead USC through tough times. The program is less than two years removed from a scandal that cost former head coach Jovan Vavic his job. Last year, USC failed to advance to the national championship match for the first time since 2002. Now the Trojans are attempting to play through a pandemic.
Pintaric still has time to answer every call and every question from players, senior attacker Jacob Mercep said. The first-team All-American wants to repay Pintaric’s hard work by helping him win his first national championship as a head coach.
“You can see how much this person puts himself into his work,” Mercep said. “When you have a person like that who works so hard, you almost feel ashamed that you don’t give him your best.”
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