Alex Rodriguez: The Architect Behind P-P Water Polo

With a win
last weekend against Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, the Pomona-Pitzer women’s water polo team clinched
the No. 1 seed for this week’s SCIAC Championships. The Sagehens will
be favorites to go ahead and clinch what would be their third consecutive
conference title and their fifth in the last nine seasons. Since 2006, the Sagehens have earned five NCAA tournament bids while making a name for themselves as one of the top Division III programs in the United States. Although the Sagehens have had fine playing talent come through the
team during those years, the primary catalyst for the growth of P-P’s program has been head coach Alex Rodriguez.

Rodriguez—who has also won four
SCIAC titles as coach of the P-P men’s water polo team since taking over for the 2005-2006 season—grew up only a few miles from the 5Cs, attending Bonita
High School in La Verne, Calif. It was there that he got his first exposure to water
polo when a swimming coach encouraged Rodriguez to try his hand at the
sport. Rodriguez proved an instant hit, quickly establishing himself as one of
the team’s scorers and winning the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Player of the Year honors as a
senior. After that, Rodriguez went on to play for a year at Citrus College in
Glendora, Calif., helping the team finish third among community colleges in the state. It was during this
time that Rodriguez began to cultivate his interests in the non-playing aspects
of water polo.

“I was always really intrigued by coaching and by the competition part of the sport,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez briefly coached
the JV team at his old high school before transferring to Pepperdine University, one of the nation’s premier water polo programs. Rodriguez’s playing
career at Pepperdine would prove immensely successful, as he gained
All-American recognition in his junior year and won a national championship
with the Waves in 1997 as a senior. Pepperdine’s coach at the time was Terry
Schroeder, a well-respected veteran in the water polo community who would eventually
coach the national team. Rodriguez was not afraid to offer his opinion to Schroeder, talking about team setup and strategy frequently.

“We definitely had a
relationship,” Rodriguez said. “I’m a very opinionated person, so he was very nice to let me say
my piece. I would say, ‘We have to do
this,’ and he would listen to me, which I think was good for my confidence.”

Such newly developed confidence brought Rodriguez back to Citrus
College as a head coach in an attempt to further hone his coaching skills.

After a successful three-year
stint at Citrus, he returned to yet another old stomping ground, taking charge
of the Bonita High boys’ team in 2001. A CIF Southern Section Championship
followed that same year, with Rodriguez named CIF Coach of the Year. An
increasingly promising coaching resume drew the attention of Schroeder, who
asked his former player to join him as an assistant in 2002. Despite the job title,
Rodriguez was given plenty of authority within the coaching setup, which he
initially found slightly difficult to manage.

“It was a learning experience,”
he said. “Before that, everything had come kind of easy. I came, coached, and was
successful right away.”

Rodriguez eventually learned the ropes of key
aspects, like recruiting, and helped lead a Pepperdine team plagued with issues
of depth—in Rodriguez’s final year, the team was composed entirely of first-years—to a moderately successful run, consistently finishing among the top handful of
teams in the country. Rodriguez, however, was eager to take over as full head coach at an NCAA school, and find, as he put it, “space to do my
own thing.” A vacancy at P-P offered Rodriguez the chance to prove his
credentials as the lead coach, as well as an opportunity to move back into the
region where he grew up. After a vetting process, Rodriguez was named coach
of both the men’s and women’s water polo teams at P-P, taking over a program
that had experienced only middling success for much of its history.

That, of course, was to change
quickly, with Rodriguez’s aggressive defensive system and emphasis on team play
soon reaping dividends in the pool. Still, he admits that there are distinct
challenges when it comes to recruiting top water polo talent to a DIII program.
While Rodriguez could talk the admissions office at Pepperdine into overlooking
problem areas to entice talented recruits, there is no such slack at P-P, where
potential student-athletes are judged on the same academic merits as the rest
of the applicant pool.

“At Pepperdine, the challenge was building a team to win
the national championship,” Rodriguez said. “Here, it’s making sure people can get in.” 

The new standards do provide an upside for
him, however.

“Before as a coach, I felt like a babysitter,” Rodriguez said. “I’m not a babysitter
anymore.”

Although he acknowledges that such barriers make a national championship run
highly unlikely, Rodriguez has no plans to leave for greener
pastures.

“Pomona has been very good to me,” he said. “It would take a lot for me to ever
leave.”

While an NCAA title as coach
may be beyond him, international silverware is very much in the realm of
possibility. After a mass clear-out in the U.S. Water Polo coaching ranks late in
2013, new national team head coach Dejan Udovic began accepting applications
for new national youth team coaches. Rodriguez, well-regarded by U.S. Water Polo
after turning his club team, Foothill Water Polo, into one of the top-ranked programs in the nation, put his name forward more in hope than expectation. To his
surprise, Udovic, who wishes to create a pipeline of elite young players into
the senior national team, offered Rodriguez the position of head coach of the men’s junior national team, comprised of players aged 20 and below.

It was a
turn of events that Rodriguez called “a dream come true,” as Udovic tasked him
with identifying a crop of young talent capable of winning a gold medal. It
promises to be a long-term and fairly exhausting project, as Rodriguez must select
a group of players out of a pool of national talent before honing their
cohesion by playing in tournaments all over the country. This summer, the
team will also travel to Italy and Turkey to play. While it may take time for
Rodriguez to see the full fruits of his labor (the 2020 Olympics is Udovic’s
long term goal), there may be even more opportunities in the interim, with
Rodriguez holding out hope that he may be able to travel with the senior national team to the 2016 Summer Games as an assistant.

“I get chills when I
think about being at a Youth World Championship and hearing the national
anthem, wearing a USA shirt,” Rodriguez said. “I think that’s super exciting.” 

Given the upward
trajectory of Rodriguez’s career so far, such a scenario may be realized sooner
rather than later.

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