With more than a century of experience between them, our longest-serving coaches look ahead now that DI has come.
Few have seen the transformation of UC San Diego like Liz LaPlante. The longest-tenured head coach in the Athletics department, LaPlante took the reins of the women’s tennis program in 1979, shortly after graduating from college herself. With four Division III national championships under her belt and continued success in two decades of Division II thereafter, LaPlante sees a bright Triton future in Division I and the Big West Conference.
What has changed over time about scholar-athletes at UC San Diego?
When I first arrived, the team had only been going for a few years; it was obviously very small, and they hadn’t won anything. But from that beginning and all throughout, we’ve had the same academically strong, smart women, obviously. But in recent years, I think they’ve gotten even smarter. Tennis-wise, too, it’s a completely different level—the seriousness, the athleticism, the strength… they’re just trained so much more now as junior players. Really, the level has gone up tenfold since I started.
Talk about winning those national championships—what did it mean to you?
Well, obviously, that was hugely exciting for the program. We won our first one in ’85 when we were Division III, and we were always one of the top-ranked teams—several times, we just barely missed it, coming in second. But it put us on the map as a really strong tennis program, and we held that strength for many years in Division III. When we transitioned to Division II, it was a different story, but it gave us so much history for those many years in Division III, which is something that can never be taken away from us.
How would you describe the transitions you’ve seen—from Division III, II and now Division I?
The transition from III to II was not huge. I think we really had outgrown Division III, just as far as playing so many small schools and winning a number of championships. The transition was smooth, though I was leery of losing our routine of always being one of the top teams. And yes, we never did win another national championship in Division II, but we held our own; we were very competitive and ended up in the top 20 pretty much every year, even going to nationals for a handful of years.
Division I will be a whole different ball game. The level’s going to be very different—much stronger obviously—but it’s exciting to be able to play peer institutions and see how we fare. We beat UC Davis a couple of years ago, and it was a huge upset, for example. The Big West has strong players, though. The first couple of years may be a little bit of a struggle, but three or four years of athletic scholarships should make us highly competitive.
What message would you give to your alumni who have passed through the program all these years?
Well, obviously, a huge thank you for all the time and effort they put into the team. It definitely is a grind to be a scholar-athlete here at UC San Diego, but they love it, and hopefully, they take away amazing memories and friendships and lessons learned from being a part of a team. I hope I’ve taught them about teamwork and team chemistry and helping each other, and they realize the importance of that—having lifelong friendships as a result.
What have you learned coaching at UC San Diego?
I’ve learned you’re not just there to teach tennis. You teach players to be better people, you see them grow, and you work to create an atmosphere on the team that’s comfortable, that feels like family. It took me many years to realize that kind of supportive team atmosphere was really the key thing. It’s the foundation on which I, too, continue to grow and try to improve everything that I do.
Head coach Denny Harper is now in his 41st year coaching water polo at UC San Diego. One of the winningest coaches in the history of the sport, Harper has built the men’s program into a consistent powerhouse and won five titles during his 16-year tenure with the women’s team. With men’s water polo having competed against Division I teams for several decades, Harper has a unique perspective on UC San Diego athletics entering DI games.
Talk about winning those national championships—what did it mean to you?
The program really cherishes winning five women’s titles together. It involved a lot of people and many great athletes. And those were all won when the sport was truly on a level playing field, meaning we all had nothing or little to nothing. Budgets were not huge; salaries were not huge. From 1983 through 1999, our teams played truly for the love of the sport. Not that our current scholar-athletes don’t, but these women did it without scholarships and very little resources. I think that most people in the modern era view me obviously as the men’s coach, but for 16 seasons, that was a great time of my life for sure.
What changes do you see coming with the transition to Division I?
Well, we already have great facilities; I’m very thankful that the university recognizes the importance of aquatics in general—not just for athletics but for recreation and our whole student body. Some improvements will still be made to those facilities, to the scoreboard and branding, for example. But the biggest impact will be our ability to properly administer scholarship awards. If all things had been equal, quite a few scholar-athletes interested in us in the past would have attended UC San Diego. It’s also conceivable for water polo to join the Big West Conference. Our women’s program is fortunate enough to be immediately sponsored as a Big West sport. Men’s water polo is not as of yet, but I’m hopeful that will happen sooner than later. It would be a great move that makes sense on a lot of fronts.
How has water polo changed over time?
When I first started coaching five decades ago, it was much more of a finesse game. Water polo has evolved into a really physical sport, and I’ve been relatively outspoken about the physicality of it. I think everybody, certainly at the NCAA level, is concerned about that. There are some rule changes coming, but it’s such a difficult sport to officiate because there’s a lot happening underwater. Imagine what basketball would be like if you couldn’t see players from the chest down. It concerns me, but we’ve adapted. I’m not the type of coach who always has a certain system or way we play, either. Every year, the team and talent we have dictate the style of how we play. Some of the best teams I’ve had were those that could adapt to any style to take advantage of the various opponents in a season.
What have you learned coaching at UC San Diego?
Early on, I was a bit of a “my way or the highway” kind of guy. But over the years, I’ve realized I’m fascinated with the nuances of the various generations. Probably around the late ’80s, it became clear to me that I should be more adaptive to what makes this particular generation tick and what makes certain individuals respond to certain aspects of coaching. I think I’ve gotten better at that over the years.
What would you say to the alumni of the team?
I talk to quite a few of them on a regular basis, actually. I’m happy to say that our club program that I started in 1976 still goes strong at the master’s level. Hundreds of my former UC San Diego team players continue to play, all the way up to a 50-and-over team known nationally for being extremely competitive. I’m proud of the fact that so many players still do that because it keeps them fit. But my message to all of my athletes is: I’m still here—if you haven’t checked in for a while, check in. Last time we counted, we have probably around 1,800 alumni from my years here, and we send out a regular newsletter to all of the current addresses that we have. So if you’ve been M.I.A. for a while, and we haven’t been able to find you, reach out because we’re still here, and I’d love to hear from you.
Softball head coach Patti Gerckens undertakes her 29th season this year. In 2011, Gerckens and her staff were National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) Coaching Staff of the Year, an honor earned amid a record 45 victories in a single season and an undefeated NCAA Tournament, ending in the program’s first National Championship title. With just under three decades of coaching behind her, she now heads to DI competition building on a strong foundation.
What is the biggest change you’ve seen coaching at UC San Diego?
UC San Diego always gave students a great education—a successful softball program was just a bonus. In the past, athletes paid for their own gear and were given minimal, if any, food money on road trips. Today, the scholar-athletes are fortunate to get all their gear from the department, and coaches are able to give athletic scholarships. We still have the same high academic standards and expectations, just more resources. Moving to Division I has already brought much excitement to campus and will increase recognition for our great university. I think that professors and other staff members are much more engaged with the athletic program now, too.
Talk about winning the national championship—what did it mean to you?
I am so blessed and fortunate to have had a great group of athletes and coaches who came together at the right time, really bought into the program, worked extremely hard and continued to fight until the end. It was a dream come true. It was very surreal when it was happening, and even afterward it didn’t really sink in. Only years down the road do you begin to understand how hard it can be to win a championship. Every year after, you keep vying for that final game to win it all, but you realize there are so many teams out there that are so talented, and things have to fall into place.
How would you characterize the road from DIII to DII and now to DI?
From the first time I walked onto campus, I knew we would become a Division I program because our athletic department always did everything at the highest level. Judy Sweet set the standard for success, and Earl Edwards really took over that philosophy when he became the athletic director. And what a long way we’ve come—in Division I, it’s a whole new ball game with new teams and challenges. UC San Diego is such a great university, with many accolades already. I know with time, UC San Diego will not only be known for impressive academics but also as one of the best athletic programs in the country. I’m confident we’re ready for the transition, and I’m excited to see it unfold.
What do you hope your players take away from their time in your program and at UC San Diego?
I hope my players take away the meaning of family and respect. I always preach how important it is to respect one another, both on and off the field, even when you may disagree. I hope that they learn how to be grateful in life and to understand that they have been given a gift of talent. Very few people have the ability to play collegiately. I want them to be grateful for that opportunity on top of everything else that they have been given, that includes lifelong friendships with their teammates and a long-term support system from their coaches, even after they graduate.
What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned during your time coaching at UC San Diego?
The idea of person over player. Most athletes will become better through encouragement rather than constant criticism. If you can get athletes to believe in themselves, then they can do just about anything. It takes patience, understanding and time—you really need to get to know your players as people. I’ve also learned it’s important to reach out and ask for help—to other coaches within the department or other people in the sport. In the end, we’re all in this together. It’s not easy to be a coach for so long; there can be a lot of burnout. But I can say that I’ve never felt burnt out because I’ve been around such great energy from the players and coaches at UC San Diego. I really love what I do, and over the last 30 years, I’ve realized I don’t go to “work” every day, but I go to play. It’s hard play, but I still love it.
—Maddy Lewis ’19
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