Coaching debuts begin new eras in water polo

Three-time Olympian Villa takes over at Castilleja while ex-Gators' coach Minnis makes his debut at Harvard

By Keith Peters

Palo Alto Online Sports

Two water polo coaching careers, and perhaps the beginning of two eras, will get under way this weekend on America's far-reaching coasts.

The first begins on Friday night when three-time USA Olympian Brenda Villa makes her head-coaching debut when she guides Castilleja in its season opener against St. Francis (Sacramento) at the Stanford Aquatic Center at 7:45 p.m.

The other gets under way Saturday when former Castilleja coach Ted Minnis and his Harvard men's team takes on Boston Metro Elite in the opening round of the MIT Invitational in Cambridge, Mass.

Villa and Minnis forever will be linked through their connections with Castilleja and Stanford. Villa starred for the Cardinal from 2001-03 while Minnis coached with the Stanford Water Polo Club. The two, who are friends, are embarking upon uncharted territory.

Villa, 30, has never been a head coach in water polo while Minnis, 41 and a veteran high school coach, is getting his feet wet for the first time in the college ranks. Both had interesting introductions to their new surroundings.

Minnis arrived in Boston a few weeks back with some luggage, clothes and a laptop. Greeting him was an empty apartment.

"My boxes hadn't arrived yet," Minnis explained. "The first couple of days I was sitting in an empty apartment. I thought to myself, 'What did I get myself into?' "

Minnis found a local store and bought himself an air mattress, camping chair, a little camp stove, pot and some utensils. Essentially, he camped out indoors until his possessions arrived.

Once he got over the initial shock, Minnis settled in quickly.

"I did that for the first week, but now it feels like home," he said. "I love the Boston area. For me, it's been great. Everyone has been so supportive. The weather hasn't been horrible. There are a lot of Castilleja kids here in Boston and at Harvard. I'm going to go see Taylor Docter play volleyball on Friday night."

Villa, meanwhile, didn't have the housing problem that Minnis did. She was set up with a guest house before departing for a month-long trip with the U.S. Women's National Team that ended with Team USA winning the gold medal at the FINA World Cup in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was women's team first such medal since 1979.

Five days after that triumph, Villa drove up to Castilleja on August 24 for her first meeting with her team and practice. Later that day, the Castilleja players called Minnis and sang "Happy Birthday" to him.

Villa saw the Gators play for the first time on Saturday during some scrimmages. This week has been her first full one with the team.

For Villa and Minnis, their respective moves have provided similar challenges. For Villa, she has had to make the mental transition from player to coach. For Minnis, he has gone from a coach and middle school athletic director to just coaching water polo full time. It has taken both some time to get used to their new roles.

"The girls appreciate me being a current player," Villa said. "They're always asking when I'm going to get in the water and show them how to do it."

Villa has yet to do that, but said that day is coming soon.

"I always said I wouldn't coach," Villa said. "I thought I needed to step away from the sport long enough to have a different mentality. But, I have had great coaches, not only at Stanford but with the National Team."

Villa also has a wealth of experience to draw on, which includes Olympic Games in 2000, '04 and '08. She has been playing internationally since 1995.

Perhaps equally important was the transition Villa experienced when long time U.S. coach Guy Baker was replaced by Adam Krikorian a few years ago. There were obvious concerns with a new coach and that he might do things differently. Villa weathered that storm and now can apply what she learned to her current situation.

"Communication is important," she said. "I'm going to do things differently (than Minnis). Any concerns should be dealt with quickly. I hope to create a good, open line of communication with them. The path that we take has been thought out."

Villa said that communication is extremely important because "they (her players) have this image or perception of me as a player." Villa, however, said that first and foremost she is their coach.

Minnis doesn't have that kind of situation at Harvard, but can relate to Villa's concentration on communication. He, after all, is the new guy in town and has been working hard to earn his players' respect.

"I just need to keep my emotions in check and do the things that got me here," Minnis said. "The challenge (at Harvard) is that they've come so far and they've gotten so much better. I need to make sure they can see that."

Minnis also has to balance dealing with the out-of-season duties for his Harvard women's team, which will play in the spring. He also has to find a way to overcome the loss of three of his six freshman, all lost to season-ending injuries.

"That's rough," he said. "They're all out for the year. But, I'm used to small numbers at Castilleja."

Moreover, this is a job that Minnis has sought for a long time and he'll take the good with the bad.

"This is definitely something I wanted to for a very long time," he said. "I'm doing what I was put here to do."

Minnis inherits a Harvard men's team that went 7-16 last season. He has only three seniors. His underclassmen include junior goalie Alexander Popp from Menlo-Atherton.

"We want to build on where we were last year as a group," Minnis said, "and just get better every . . . We want to win (Collegiate Water Polo Association) Northerns, get into the Eastern (Conference playoffs) and hopefully play in the NCAAs (at Cal)."

That possible path begins this weekend and continues with upcoming matches at the Princeton Invitational (Sept. 11-12) against the Tigers and Santa Clara University. The latter will reunite Minnis with former Menlo School coaching rival Keith Wilbur.

"That's going to be a lot of fun," Minnis said.

So, too, will be following the exploits of Castilleja and Villa.

"She's so well-respected by everyone in the water polo world," Minnis said of Villa. "I'm glad they (the Gators) have such a great person leading them. Hey, after all, those are my girls!"

Minnis is hoping to get a score of Castilleja's first match on Friday night, before he goes to bed. Villa, most certainly, would like it to be good news.

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