Interview: Devin Hurst of Royal High School

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To understand why U.S. women’s water polo is so exceptional one has only to look at the California Interscholastic Federation – Southern Section, the massive compilation of 250 girls high school teams located in Southern California, the most fertile and competitive water polo region in America.

SoCal is a tough place to win, and Devin Hurst, head coach for the Royal High School girls water polo team, has won there twice.

In 2015 and 2016 his Lady Highlanders team won back-to-back CIF-SS Division 4 titles, a remarkable feat by any measure. Hurst, who starred as a player for the Highlanders from 1986-90, returned to his alma mater in 1996. An assistant to boy’s coach Steve Snyder, in 2000 he took over the girls program, leading Royal to a CIF title game in 2004. After a six year break to start an age-group program with legendary coach Hank Toring, Hurst returned to lead Royal to championship wins, ably assisted by his oldest daughter Jenna. Now a freshman at UCLA,  from 2012-16 the oldest of Hurst’s three daughters scored a school record 364 goals while earning 2015 CIF Division 4 Player of the Year honors.

Hurst spoke with Total Water Polo about his career in the sport, including playing at Pepperdine for legendary coach Terry Schroeder, his transition from playing to coaching at Royal High School and coaching daughters Jenna and Snyder at Royal—but losing youngest child Gracie to Simi Valley powerhouse Oaks Christian and former Pepperdine teammate Jack Kocur.

How did you get your start in water polo?

I was a swimmer growing up until I was 10. My brother was a swimmer in high school and he started playing, and it was something I wanted to do.

I went through my Royal high school career—didn’t win any major championships—we won league titles. Individually I did fairly well—All-American honors. Going to Pepperdine was incredible. It was a dream of mine to play under Terry. He was an idol that I always wanted to be coached by.

He offered me a half-scholarship. One thing that was very nice about Schroed was [that] he promised my dad in our first initial recruiting, if I kept improving, he would look at my scholarship ever year and raise it. He held to his word. I continued to improve in our sport and every year he raised it… to a full ride my senior year.

As far as being taught by Schroeder, one thing that stands out: he’s an inspirational and motivating coach that’s unmatched. And you know when he’s upset with you. It’s not because he’s yelling and screaming at you, his demeanor… it’s like when your dad is disappointed in you. It’s the same kind of look that Schroeder would give you. Man, that motivated me more than anything and most of the guys on our team felt the same way.

After Pepperdine I went and trained with the national team for a year. Just prior to that I was selected for the Olympic Festival team in St. Louis. My squad won a gold medal and that was an experience. A little after that I played for the national team for a year and then hung up our sport as a player.

In 1995 the preparation was for the Olympic games next year in Atlanta. What was the environment like at that time for U.S. polo?

I saw the writing on the wall for ’96. There were quite a few returning players from the ’92 squad and there were a few guys who had been playing on my juniors team who looked like they were ahead of me as well.  Chris Oeding played the same position [as me]; he was definitely going to go ahead of me [because] he had more experience.

I was looking at not making it in ’96 and then it would be another four years to go to 2000. My focus changed in life—I met a girl and changed my perspective quite a bit [laughs].

How did you migrate from playing polo to coaching in high school – and for Royal High School, no less?

I got away from the sport for a little bit and then came back to it as an assistant coach at Royal underneath a coach who had been there a long time, Steve Snyder. I was his assistant for 8-10 years. During that time I had my family—my daughters were getting older—so I started back in age group polo because we didn’t really have an age group program in our area. I knew my kids were probably going to come up through that sport, and it was something that I knew a lot about.

I started an age-group program with Hank Toring. Hank had a granddaughter, Bailey Moore, who was the same age as my oldest daughter Jenna. Meanwhile I took over the Royal High School girls program—which was only about two years old at that point.

My goal when I first took it over was to win in four years. We fell a little short. We made the quarterfinals that first year then two semifinal appearances and then made the finals—and the year that we made it was unfortunate for us. The opponent that we met was Santa Barbara, who went undefeated and beat everybody in Orange County with Kami Craig [3-time Olympian; 2-time Peter J. Cutino Award winner]. She was a senior that year and they beat us by six or seven in the finals. She was pretty much fantastic.

I stayed a couple of more years but my daughters were getting older and I was missing a lot of time with them—so when I stopped coaching high school as much is when I really focused on the age-group program with Hank.

I walked away from the sport for a bit but did some things with Jack [Kocur]–he started a group called the Pepperdine Water Polo Club. It was separate from Pepperdine but we called it the “Waves” because we were both graduates. It was more of an older boys club—you had to have some talent to be on the squad. It wasn’t very big; we had U16 and U18 squads—Alex Rodriguez was involved with that too—he coached the 18s and Jack and I coached the 16s.

We ended up winning a Junior Olympics championship in Florida with our 16s and 18s, which was quite an accomplishment.

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I’d been away from high school [polo] and I came back in 2011. I came back one year prior to when Jenna came into high school to get the program settled into the way that I wanted it to run. A group of freshmen who had been playing club water polo for me came in at the same time that next year. Those four freshmen [Megan Abarta, Nicole Espinoza, Jenna Hurst, Bailey Moore] were instantly starters on my varsity team and we grew from there.

My goal when I took back over was to win it in four years and we were able to do that—and the fifth year as well.

This year we dropped off a bit. We got moved to the top CIF division—Division 1—and made the playoffs but fell short [Royal lost to Dos Pueblos 18-6 in the first round of the CIF-SS Championship].

You’re coaching girls’ polo in the highest level of high school water polo in the nation, and winning. How do you do it?

Victory Leap! Photo Courtesy Devin Hurst

Definitely the time put in. Like anything else [that’s what you need] to be successful. These girls started at 10 and 11 and grew through the age group program.

Everywhere you look there’s competition, so we’re always playing against the best squads around. BCP [Bellarmine College Preparatory], Ventura Premier or Simi Water Polo Club, they were in the top 15, we were not a big club—we were a local club in Simi Valley—we always went to the tournaments that the best teams were at and set our targets at those.

The first time we’d get beat by 20 and the next time we’d get beat by 15, showing the girls that we were making progress, they’ve got to keep going.  Within two years we were within five goals because the girls really committed and played a lot of water polo.

You’ve got to add scrimmages and playing but our main focus was body positioning and fundamentals right off the bat. Not only that it was being aggressive. Even at a young age we taught partner swimming where they would swim side-by-side. You were not allowed to swim in a straight line; you had to be like a NASCAR racer and run into the player next to you and figure out a way to get in front of that player.

We didn’t work on drawing a foul on the perimeter. I’m not a big believer of that. You’re going to get fouled when you’re making an offensive move trying to go to the cage. The way the defender is going to stop you is they’re going to grab you and they’re going to get kicked out or you’re going to draw a foul.

We were always very aggressive in the transition game and on the perimeter at a very young age. That grew as they grew and the culture shock as they got older—it wasn’t a big deal to them.

Not only were they used to taking contact they were used to giving it as well.

When I say: “physical play”—I wasn’t a dirty player when I grew up. I definitely would grab to maneuver or to fake. But it was never taught that the player’s head is under water, here comes a knee. Or an elbow. It was about being aggressive and going for the body but it was more of a grab and a hold than a kick or a scratch. We never taught that at all; some coaches do. You can see the way their team plays.

I’m not saying my players were clean all the time—you have to learn how to survive—and being a coach who played men’s water polo versus coaching girls, there’s a huge difference with the girls’ suits. There’s a lot you can get away with whereas with guys you have a little Speedo. Girls you have a whole suit to grab.

There’s a lot more grabbing and holding on the girls’ side. I had to figure out a way and even ask the girls where they were being grabbed and to come up with strategies about how to do that.

You recently presented a water polo clinic at Chelsea Piers Connecticut, one of the better pools on the East Coast. How different is this then the environment for polo in Southern California?

Just like me getting started in the sport and I see my brother being successful and I want to be like him, being around aquatics—and swimming is obviously huge—at such a young age and entering a sport that includes so many guys in the SoCal area that are successful, guys that we are able to look up to. There are thousands more people in our area than there is in the Chelsea Piers area and then the East Coast.

Then there’s the exposure to games. I know that USA Water Polo’s trying to bring the national teams out there but everywhere we go [in California] there’s a collegiate game—a UCLA/USC game—around us. Often I’d see a Julian Bailey from Cal or an Alex Roesle from UCLA, and I’d think: “I want to be like that guy.”

I was able to watch a lot of that and go to the games and bring that experience back to my home pool.

A kid on the East Coast, they don’t get to see that. Even in our area, when Jack and I were starting high school, we had to go to Orange County but it was still close enough to go and watch better players. Now in our Ventura County area it’s grown huge in the last 20 years but [back then] it wasn’t that much. I learned a lot of stuff through videos.

Another one of the big reasons is here in SoCal the cluster of former water polo players turned coach that know a lot about the game and they’re very competitive so there’s a lot of knowledge here. Not everybody goes on to become a coach but a lot do and they give back to the sport. There’s just more out here in Southern California that do that—just sheer numbers and this is the breeding ground of it. It makes the whole area more competitive.

I’m not saying that teams back East don’t want to win. The conference title in high school is just as important to them as it is here, but maybe the stakes are higher in [SoCal].

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A prime example back when I was playing is Wolf Wigo. He’s from New York and he comes out here, plays, does all his stuff and doesn’t return. He’s out here in the Santa Barbara area.

You have a guy who’s super knowledgeable and super good at our sport but doesn’t return to give back that knowledge. And I’m not saying he doesn’t go back there and help but he stayed.

That hurts the East as well.

We’re definitely on a positive spin. Things are getting better; Greenwich and other teams they’re improving at JOs. They’re getting better. They starting to experience a lot more success.

When I graduated college men’s water polo took a step backwards when they shrunk the [NCAA men’s] tournament from eight teams to four. When it was eight teams two or three of the Eastern teams were getting in. I played against Louie Nicolao as Navy made it two of the years that I was there.

There would be Slippery Rock and some different squads from our East would come and you would see them more. Ever since the women’s water polo scene has kicked in and their popularity has really helped to grow the sport.

Our collegiate women’s NCAA league is almost like the professional league of the world. The men aren’t quite the same.

Let’s talk about your daughters; Jenna, Sydney and Gracie have not only played for you but have excelled in the sport. How is it to have your kids not only playing but excelling under your tutelage?

Sydney, Gracie, Jenna Hurst with dad Devin

It’s quite cool. I think I would be involved whether our kids played or not, just because I love our sport so much. But it’s definitely brought a different element to it because getting to talk shop at the dinner table. I wouldn’t say our world revolves around water polo but it has a lot to do with it.

Jenna started a bit like me. When I coached at Royal High School those first few years she would come to the pool with me. I’d be coaching and walking up and down the deck and she’d have her little goggles on swimming underneath and following me back and forth. Eventually a ball was produced and she started using it and getting in with the high school girls, even though she was much younger.

She fell in love with the sport, and you don’t get to her status—right now she’s fighting for a spot on the MPSF tournament roster—with UCLA they’re so talented their first 12 and then they take two goalies, so there’s 14 sports already taken and they’re only going to take 16. She’s battling for those last two spots as a freshman and I don’t know if she’ll be on the roster this weekend or in two weeks at NCAA.

She was one of the main recruits for UCLA this year. She wasn’t going to be the big impact player for this year, it’s for the following year. It took a lot of hard work but she definitely had the talent and the genetics to be a good water polo athlete. She’s one of the most intelligent players that I’ve seen in high school water polo. Bringing that to college water polo is certainly going to help her.

She’s not a big girl—she’s 5-6—but they always say you play bigger in the water. But it does matter when you’re playing against Brigitta Games from USC or Kami Craig. Her quickness definitely helps her equalize that [as does] her intelligence, her tenacity and her conditioning level.

All three are different. Sydney wasn’t as interested in water polo but finally came back to it at 12 and really got into the ODP scene—she was excited about that—and has really developed. She doesn’t have the speed that her sister has, she’s a little bigger sized girl. She has moves that are very impressive, more powerful than Jenna. She plays a different position than her sister, she plays more of the center area but also plays on the outside, so she’s more of a utility player where she can play inside and out.

She’s our starting center and does a very good job of it. She shattered our program’s record for exclusions drawn.

Sydney’s more of an all-around where she can play each position where Jenn’s more of an attacker.

And little one [Gracie]. Only 14, she combines both girls [but] has this extra thing which is “Win at any cost.” Skill-wise, growing up with her sisters, learning from them and being in the water constantly from a very young age. Some of the moves she’s trying are advanced—well before most of the girls that I’ve trained—foot moves over girl’s heads, spin moves, backhands constantly. And she’s super-fast speed, super-fast twitch, which is a huge bonus in our sport.

She’s just this little firecracker and doesn’t fear [anything].

But she’s not going to follow her sisters and play for you at Royal High School…

2016 CIF-SS Champs. Photo Courtesy: Devin Hurst

She’s going to go to Oaks Christian. We have some family friends that go to Oaks Christian and she’s always talked about it. Me being around there [Hurst is an assistant coach with the boys team] and Gracie having these friends who go to Oaks Christian and being on the campus—it’s a world-class facility as a sports complex. Everything’s high tech, everything’s first class.

I was talking with her, saying: “Hey Gracie, let’s try Royal one year, you and Sydney will get to play together…” But she is focused on what she wants.

I think it’s just a perfect fit for her, so how can I deny her if that’s what she truly wants. One year playing with Sydney, not letting Gracie have her path.

They are playing together this year with Rose Bowl Water Polo at the 16A level. Gracie’s been brought up to play on Sydney’s team and they won the Cal Cup State Championship. So they got the gold medal there and they’re going to play this summer together quite a bit.

At least I’ll get to see them play together for a few months.