Lopes bring in new coaching staff to get club on its feet
By: Julie Laugel/GCU Staff
Treading water, running plays, wrestling a defender – all while trying to score the ball into the goal.
Water polo is a growing sport in Arizona requiring strength, speed, and endurance, and is one of the newest additions to Grand Canyon University Club Sports. While it may not be as familiar to most as sports like basketball or football, that doesn’t detract from water polo’s difficult level of competition.
“It’s a tough sport, but it’s a fun sport,” said Lopes’ Assistant Coach Troy Leeper. “There’s a lot of skill to water polo, and you just can’t jump in the water and start playing because it involves a lot conditioning and coordination. If a lot of players can get over that hump and understand the conditioning part, the skill-based part will get a lot better.”
The GCU Club Water Polo program was formed at the same time as GCU Club Swimming with nearly 15 members, but struggled to find secure leadership to get the club up and running. With the help and guidance of the GCU Club Swimming Head Coach Jeremy Phung, the club was finally able to assemble a dedicated and skilled coaching staff.
“I saw how successful I was able to start club swimming, and I saw the need and want for water polo, so I decided to help them get on their feet and do the administrative work,” said Phung. “Starting swimming wasn’t easy, either, but with the experience of starting up a brand-new program, I felt like I could really help them along. From there, it was the student leaders and coaches that we’ve brought on that have made it into what it is now.”
Among these coaches is Lopes’ Student Head Coach Tyler Lowell, an incoming sophomore who will also play on the team. He has extensive experience, having played for Foothill Water Polo Club, one of the top club teams in southern California, throughout high school. Lowell also competed at a national level and helped lead his team to an 18th place finished at the USA Water Polo National Junior Olympics in 2018.
The Lopes have also brought on two assistant coaches, Leeper and Sheri Hopper. Leeper has nearly 30 years’ experience coaching a variety of different sports, but became interested in water polo after watching his kids play at a recreational program in Mesa. He then began playing with the Mesa Aquatics Club Masters water polo program, and became a USA Water Polo-certified referee and lifeguard. In 2018, Leeper stepped into the head coaching position at Mesa Water Polo, and continues to run the program with his wife in addition to his Lopes’ duties.
“My passion is to grow the sport. That’s why I’m giving my time to the Mesa Water Polo and GCU programs,” said Leeper. “These kids really want to learn, they’re eager, and they listen. You can see that they needed the leadership and support.”
Meanwhile, Hopper, a Washington native, grew up playing many sports and was introduced to water polo in high school. She fell in love with the sport, and carried her new passion with her to college, where she organized and played on a master’s team in Washington. After college, she spent four years running the swim and water polo teams at Kentlake High School, taking them to the state championships several years in a row. Hopper took a break from competition to raise a family, but stayed involved with fundraising for USA Water Polo prior to her position at GCU.
“This will be my first time working with a collegiate sport group,” said Hopper. “I’m looking forward to seeing – especially with all of the things we have going on with COVID-19 – how we can make sure everybody feels success this year, sees improvement in their own game and passion, and finds their own personal balance.”
Together, the new coaching staff has recruited 26 athletes to join the Lopes’ program. Since the sport is still new to Arizona, many experienced players come from California, while others are just starting out. The team consists of seven men and 19 women, and although the program is co-ed, the men and women practice together but compete separately.
In their first year as a program in 2019-20, the Lopes competed in one tournament at Arizona State University, dropping their first three matches before ending the tournament on a high note, avenging an earlier loss to ASU by defeating the Sun Devils by one point.
In 2020-21, the women will be added to the Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA), a league consisting of fifteen divisions and over 100 different schools, including local schools such as ASU and the University of Arizona. However, due to the low numbers of players on the men’s side, the Lopes weren’t added to that side of the CWPA, but hope to get up to ten players for a full team.
The Lopes have an intrasquad scrimmage scheduled for the GCU fall semester, then plan to compete in tournaments (contingent on COVID-19 travel bans) during the spring semester. During their off time, they’ll do a lot of conditioning, individual drill work, and shooting drill work on their own to prepare for the season.
“Even though we can’t play the sport like we want to, and we can’t practice the sport like we want to, were still going to commit ourselves to the sport,” said Leeper.
Regardless of practice and competition restrictions, the coaching staff is eager to get in the pool and build on the team’s talent and potential to see what they are capable of.
“I’m excited to finally get a team together and start competing, and to watch them take off and come into their own as a group,” said Phung.
Interested in GCU Club Water Polo? Visit the GCU Club Sports website for more info!