Due to a crush of coronavirus coverage, one noteworthy polo announcement escaped almost unnoticed. After six successful years leading women’s water polo at Virginia Military Institute (VMI), Ryan Pryor is decamping to Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois to lead the Vikings’ new men’s and women’s programs.
The move resonates due to VMI’s impressive results the previous four years in Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) play. Following their first-ever MAAC playoff berth in 2017, the Keydets also qualified in 2018 and 2019. This past spring promised to be the best in program history; not only did VMI get off to a 12-1 start, they were backed by senior Isabel French—by some measures the best netminder in MAAC women’s polo history .
Of course, everything came crashing to a halt mid-March due to a nation-wide stoppage of athletic play in response to Covid-19.
For Pryor, a Michigan native, his new job brings him closer to home as his young family grows. It’s also represents a step up from VMI; not only will he get to build a program from scratch, Augustana is constructing a 52,000 square foot athletic facility that will include a 10-lane, all deep pool. The Peter J. Lindberg, M.D., Center for Health and Human Performance is the centerpiece of the college’s push to expand its athletic profile in the world of Division III athletics.
Reached by Total Waterpolo last month while packing up to move his wife and child—with another expected—to Rock Island, Pryor spoke about his great success with VMI, the prospects for Vikings water polo and how almost an entire year without competition will impact the fortunes of a new program slated to get in the water for the fall 2021 season.
– You’re making a move that brings you closer to home, but leave behind a VMI program that became a consistent playoff team due to your efforts.
I was very proud of the success we had there. I was fortunate to work with a great group of athletes who were dedicated, mature and coachable. But when the opportunity came up to move to Augustana, there was the personal draw being from the Midwest. My wife is also from Michigan, so getting closer to family was certainly a factor.
From a coaching standpoint, it’s been a dream of mine to start a program from scratch. I was attracted to the opportunity, Augustana is a place where student-athletes can excel both academically and athletically, so an opportunity to be part of that environment was very attractive.
– The caliber of athletes at VMI was high, both in terms of their ability to play polo and be coached—which was a big part of the program’s success.
They were a great group. At VMI they have so much on their plates, with athletic and academic [responsibilities]. They also have the military side of things. Many of them had leadership roles within the Corp.
It speaks to the maturity of the type of student who goes to VMI, but specifically the ones who were on the water polo team.
– Moving to Augustana, will there a pool ready for you to compete in?
There is a pool at Augustana [which] the swim team has been using. We won’t have water polo this year, but there is a pool available now.
The new facility is on schedule; we just started putting up the walls last week. It’s set to be done next summer, so by the time we have varsity water polo in August, it will be ready to go.
– Do you have any concerns about what happens if there are delays in finishing the pool?
It wouldn’t be the end of the world. The pool that we currently have is not unlike many I’ve worked in before. It’s certainly sufficient, especially in the short-term. If there were delays, we would adjust our practice schedule, and could be successful in that facility.
…I don’t expect any major delays. With construction, you never know, but I fully believe it will be ready to go.
– The devastation the pandemic has wreaked on American life has been horrible—and this includes its impact on NCAA sports. You will not be competing this year; will Covid-19 have any impact on your preparation for the 2020-21 academic year?
I’m disappointed for the fall athletes around the country who are having their seasons delayed. I know what that’s like, having had the season cut short with VMI this past spring. From a personal standpoint, it’s a little easier that I don’t have to worry about that in the short-term. I can focus on building the roster.
– How has your recruiting been impacted by the coronavirus?
I was fortunate to have an extensive database of prospects to start from because that’s the biggest thing affected—not being able to go out and evaluate prospects. As a DIII school, the dead period that prohibits recruits from visiting DI schools doesn’t affect us. We are planning on having visits this fall—they’re not going to look like they would in normal circumstances.
We want to give the student-athletes as full an experience as possible so they can get all the information they need to make an informed decision.
If some of them opt not to take the visit out of caution, we’ll use a virtual visit model. I’m prepared to do that. It’s been a lot of Zoom meetings, and there will be adjustments. But, we’re all in the same boat and will work through it.
– What type of students will you be recruiting to be part of your squad at Augustana?
The biggest thing is student-athletes who value a well-rounded experience—not only exceeding in athletics but also academics. If they have any other interests—organizations, research—they’ll have the opportunity to do that at Augustana. That’s common in the DIII model but it’s particularly true at Augustana. The focus here is not only to provide the opportunity to do all those things but also the resources for student-athletes—and students in general—to excel in all their areas of interest.
– The Midwest contains a concentration of valuable if overlooked talent. Given your familiarity with the region, both from your playing at Michigan as well as recruiting for VMI, what role might this region play as you craft your men’s and women’s rosters?
Augustana presents—particularly for the Midwesterner—a unique combination of strong academic reputation, great athletic facilities, affordability and a great location. Augustana is strong across the board, and that’s going to be a big drawing point for recruits.
My being from the Midwest helps with my perspective on this. Remember that athletes—particularly outside of California—are typically going to be further behind on the development curve than ones on the West Coast. You can’t compare a player in Chicago to one in California; they’re not going to look the same when they’re a junior in high school.
Some of them have done a lot of traveling and ODP and are very polished. Some players have a lot of room to grow, through no fault of their own.
I didn’t start playing until high school, and a lot of athletes in the Midwest are the same. They just haven’t had the time to develop. Keeping in mind where their position is on an individual learning curve, you can uncover players of great potential.
– Some coaches believe that fundamentals are taught prior to high school—and that college ball is all about working in a particular system. How do you view this?
As a coach, I’m a big believer in balance. I don’t want to spend so much time on one area of the game at the expense of another. I like to hit everything fairly equally, whether it’s fundamentals, more advance individual skills or team tactics. I’m a big believer in having a season plan how we’re going to work things out in each of those areas.
I wouldn’t pick one avenue over another. It’s important to hit all of them, continue to develop skills but also develop a sophisticated system for players to be able to put those skills to use;
– Do you look at the experiences of other programs—such as LaSalle’s struggle and Wagner’s success with their men—and the big leap of adding men’s and women’s teams at the same time?
One of the big separators—and you can throw St. Francis University in Pennsylvania into that mix and LIU this year—neither programs had a lot of wins in their first year but they were competitive right away. I thought those coaches [Jay O’Neil at SFU and Gabby Juarez at LIU] did a great job of building those initial rosters.
In both of those situations, and in the case of the men’s team at Wagner, the coaches had a full year to build their rosters.
Augustana’s already made a great choice by hiring a coach a now so that I have a full recruiting cycle to build a roster. If you shorten that then you end up having trouble getting out of the gate with your first couple of years.
This year that I have will be hugely beneficial, both in terms of setting up initial success but also the long-term success that will follow.
– Success in sports is about creating the best environment for the right athletes. You created that culture with your female athletes at VMI; now you’re going to be dealing with both sexes.
I’ll draw a lot on my experience prior to VMI. I was at Connecticut College for three years as an assistant coach [under Head Coach JJ Addison], which was another DIII school with a men’s and women’s program. So, I do have that experience working with both teams.
I don’t think you can generalize a different treatment by gender. Different individuals may require different types of motivation. The important thing is to know student athletes on an individual level, on what makes them tick. So, as a coach, you can put them in the best position to be successful.
But I don’t think those difference necessarily cut along gender lines.
– It appears that on all levels that Augustana is committed to your program’s success.
Absolutely. They’ve started a number of new athletic programs in the past half a dozen years and that’s been the common thread. To boost enrollment is certainly a selling point, but they want to make sure they have a successful program—and not just an existent [one].
– Does this mean that funding for travel will be available—especially to the West Coast?
Obviously, we’re still working out our schedule. A year out from competition a lot is still to be decided, including the scheduling.
There’s limited competition in the Midwest, so we’ll be traveling East a lot. But, I would love to get out to the West Coast. not just the level of talent out there but the number of prospective student athletes and giving them the opportunity to play in their home state is important.
– How beneficial is the DIII national championship format launched last year to building interest in the sport?
That’s huge. A handful of years ago there were a couple of programs waffling on whether to continue because there wasn’t a national championship tournament to play for. When I was at Connecticut College, we won a couple of CWPA DIII championships and they were awesome teams. We were very proud of that accomplishment but it felt like there should have been another step after that for us to compete nationally.
It was disappointing that didn’t exist at the time.
Not everyone’s going to be able to win a national championship but having that ultimate goal to shoot for is big for recruiting but also for the mindset of the players on the team.
– You’re a year out, so expectations are hard to quantify. Where do you see your program in its first couple of years?
I am confident that we’ll be able to put together a roster that’s highly competitive right away. I’m not going to put a win-loss expectation on it. The biggest think is to put in a culture that’s going to help us be successful long-term.
The team’s going to be young, but I have experience coaching younger teams—my second year at Connecticut on the women’s side we had a freshman class of seven. All of them were significant contributors; we had older players as well but we had a lot of important young players on that team which ended up winning the CWPA DIII championship that year.
If you’ve got the right dedication and talent you can overcome youth. I’m getting very strong interest right now and I believe that we’ll put together a strong roster and hopefully be competitive right away.