One of the franker and more refreshing water polo coaches on the East Coast has seen his workload cut in half. But, fortunately for his players and Total Waterpolo readers, La Salle’s Tom Hyham will continue on with women’s polo in Philadelphia, even though this week the university announced the shuttering of seven Explorer athletic teams, including men’s water polo.
In the strange days of the coronavirus pandemic, where so much is both confusing and (often) horrid, La Salle’s men have a lease on competition—if their conference can get in the water starting in January for a limited slate of matches.
Speaking this week with TWp, Hyham detailed the decision-making behind Explorers’ Athletic Director Brian Baptiste’s announcement to eliminate men’s polo along with baseball; men’s swimming and diving; men’s tennis; softball; volleyball; and women’s tennis. He also explained the strange fate of his men’s squad, which will play in 2020-21 if there’s competition, and closed on a hopeful note that perhaps polo’s future at La Salle is not so grim.
How are you and your extended family dealing with life in a pandemic in Philadelphia?
I think we’re similar to other people in my situation—all the other coaches that had their programs cancelled in the spring. My daughters continue to play and are trying to make the most of it all. They were impacted adversely in the spring; one is a junior this year, the other is a senior.
Depending upon what happens this year, one has only got one season so far, the other’s only got two seasons—she could realistically end her college season that way. So, it’s disappointing from that perspective.
We are very hopeful that something positive will happen this spring.
As a family, we’re doing just fine. The girls are working out, training, staying positive and trying to get the college experience at the same time. Locally here, there was the news earlier this summer of having the season postponed for the men.
I had programmed myself after the women’s season was cancelled in March that we would be back in August, ready to roll. The wind was taken out of my and everyone else’s sails a little bit when the announcement came that the men would not be playing. Now we’re trying to get through this fall semester in hopes that good things will come at the onset of the spring.
Are students on campus at La Salle? What is the university’s current status?
La Salle is completely remote, right now. Our men’s and women’s basketball teams have been the only teams approved to come on campus, as their season was not postponed.
As far as my players go, I have a handful of my women’s team players who live directly off-campus; my men’s team I have a handful of players who are there also. We are able to start limited on-campus training next week.
We’re in a pandemic, with so many implications. How are you and your players reacting to this stunning turn of events?
Not having the fall season was a shock; getting yesterday’s news was another one. I’m sure that I haven’t fully absorbed the news yet, because it is so fresh.
I completely understand the thought process behind the decision; it doesn’t make it any easier, to absorb the fact that men’s water polo will no longer be at La Salle. It’s a hit—mainly to our student-athletes.
I’ve been on non-stop calls since yesterday. At one point in time last night I had to stop looking at my email. I needed to take a breath and be able to speak with people this morning.
First and foremost, I feel for the student-athletes. I’m fortunate in the sense that I’ll still have the women’s team to work with.
La Salle Athletic Director Brian Baptiste came in August—and one of the first things that’s cut is men’s water polo. Is this a case where a new AD doesn’t appreciate the value of polo both in terms of its athletic appeal but also its relatively small financial footprint?
In August, when Brian came in, I was impressed from day one. His ideas and concepts seem to be right on the mark. Water polo being cut is an unfortunate reality, but one of the things that he was brought in to do was assess our athletic department as a whole and make difficult decisions.
There are a lot of nuts and bolts involved with this decision that I don’t know. No one wants to have programs cut at a school, but we want to have winning programs and want to have good leadership and direction. I believe that Brian provides that leadership and direction.
I think that he’s positioned La Salle to be in a better spot as an athletic department. And an absolute, 100% downside to that is water polo was one of the teams impacted.
It’s hard to contest the decision when on the surface it makes sense.
I want to confirm that you are still on board to coach women’s water polo at La Salle.
One hundred percent. The silver lining for me is: it’s tough coaching two programs. Being the head coach of two programs is a very tall order—and I found that out over the last couple of years. The positive that’s coming out of this for me personally is, I give 100% effort into one program.
As much as I enjoyed coaching the men’s team—and I can’t emphasize enough how much I enjoyed coaching that men’s team—I am looking at the positive side of it now and I can put the more focus on one program versus splitting time.
There’s a wrinkle; in the plan that the CWPA put forth is that they would hold a men’s season in January and complete it by March so that a women’s season would happen. Assuming there’s a season, will La Salle field a men’s team next spring—even though the program is being cut?
La Salle is planning to have a men’s water polo team in the spring. We are going to support our student-athletes as they make difficult decisions in terms of their futures, but we are planning to have a season. As far as I’m concerned we are moving forward with that.
As a coach, could you ask for a more motivating factor than a team that’s been told they’re on the chopping block—but they’ll get to play anyway. For a program that was trending in a positive direction last season, could this represent a great opportunity for the Explorers?
I like your assessment of last season. We had only one conference win over Navy but looking at the growth of the program; in the MAWPC championships matched up against Bucknell we were tied with them midway through the fourth quarter. This was a team that went on to beat Harvard to play in California. The weekend before we lost to Fordham by one goal—they were a formidable opponent also.
The transition of the team is what was making everybody excited. We knew coming into this year that we needed to fill some small gaps, which was why I reached out to international players, and it was going to be a transition to a more positive program.
I don’t know specifically what’s going to happen with my international players; I’ve spoken with Kiahi [Horan] and he initially said that if we’re having a spring season he wants to come over and play for me. Veljko [Kotarica] over in Serbia—my 6-4 goalie that I’m very excited about—he’s thinking about the situation now. Tommaso [Ramacciotti] over in Italy, these were all going to be impact players coming into the season.
Combined with four other new players domestically that I was planning to bring in.
It’s hugely motivating to know that you only get one more shot. If we can keep the team together, we’ll do some great things, whether it’s in an abbreviated season or however it ends up happening.
The parents are motivated; I’ve talked to quite a few parents over the past 24 hours. I know from a support side we’re gonna get a lot from the parents as well.
If we’re able to keep it together it could be epic for us—an epic way to close out the program.
The coronavirus has attacked underlying conditions in so many ways. This is a vital threat to polo; how does the water polo community combat this threat so that they move through a dire time?
First, it’s important for me to point out that I don’t think that our men’s program was a victim of COVID. The overall assessment of the athletic department dictated actions that were taken.
I do think that COVID plays a big role in the sport of water polo in college right now–and every sport, for that matter. I don’t think there’s a single East Coast team that’s planning a California trip this spring. A lot of teams have been told: regional travel only, no overnighters.
Those who are doing overnighters, the protocols for that are stringent. The impact is going to be more on a financial side; if we are no longer able to travel or do overnighters, then regional tournaments for us to go to Harvard, or Navy—you can’t necessarily have two-day tournaments. Which is going to affect how many games you’re going to be able to play and who you can play.
As far as what the future will bring, we’ve got to pivot and figure out solutions. I don’t have answers to what those solutions are at the present time but we’ve got to decide what’s the new normal is going to be for sports in general.
We’ve got to establish ways to minimize the impact caused by the coronavirus; in many cases that takes money. If we need a special room fitted or changing the way we fly across the country.
I don’t have all of the answers but we’ve got to establish what that new normal is going to be because it’s not just the program or the coaches who are having to deal with this. The kids playing are being affected far worse.
This has been the craziest recruiting year ever. I feel horrible for the high school senior class. Most of them hadn’t prepared enough video or done enough for [coaches] to know who you are. So, if you’re a mid- to high player who hasn’t been looked at by too many college coaches, it’s now word of mouth or sophomore year videos.
Zoom has become the new recruiting tool for coaches; it’s the middle of September and I’m already hearing from recruits that they’re committing to places.
It’s been a wild year caused by the coronavirus—and I don’t know that’s going to change much in the coming year.
We’ll wait and see.