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The Inland Empire’s ‘first couple’ of water polo

The Haldeman pool on Pomona-Pitzer’s campus is the turf of 3 dogs—Magic, Riley and Kaia. They belong to Kristin McKown and Alex Rodriguez, 2 local water polo coaches who share a passion for dogs, water polo, education and each other.

Water polo may just be southern California’s fastest growing club sport, and its popularity throughout the region is having a direct impact on high school competition and college recruitment.  Often, all 3 levels of water polo become intertwined, as is the case with the local polo power couple.

Mr. Rodriguez, the mens and womens coach for Pomona-Pitzer, and Ms. McKown, the boys and girls coach at Claremont High School, each do double duty as coaches for Foothill Club Water Polo, started 6 years ago by Mr. Rodriguez and John Ashby, the boy’s coach at Bonita High School in La Verne.

At Foothill, Mr. Rodriguez coaches the 18 and under level boys while Ms. McKown is in charge of the 14 and under girls.

Mr. Rodriguez started the club after coming to Pomona-Pitzer to be the colleges’ head coach. After coaching at Pepperdine (where he won a national championship as a player), Mr. Rodriguez began building the Pomona program. 

If it sounds like the world of water polo is a close knit one, that’s because it is. Mr. Rodriguez’s one-time coach, Jim Armstrong, now coaches at Foothill and Pomona-Pitzer, using his seasoned skills as a top recruiter of potential college players. 

“At one early-season practice, I saw this little kid warming up. He was not very fast, and I worried he would get crushed, but he didn’t back down one bit,” Mr. Armstrong said of Mr. Rodriguez, his former player. “He won an NCAA national championship as a player, then won CIF championships as a high school coach and SCIAC championships as a college coach. And he’s not from the usual water polo power house areas. He’s from La Verne.”

When Mr. Rodriguez came back to coach at Bonita High School, Ms. McKown joined him as an assistant, then took over duties at Foothill Club for the girls team. She eventually branched out on her own securing her current position at Claremont High School. Principal Brett O’Connor was looking for a coach who could also teach—in this case Environmental Science, physiology, and anatomy. Hesitant to let her coach right away, Mr. O’Connor recommended that Ms. McKown get acclimated as a teacher first, suggesting she take over the girls team in the winter of her first year. 

“It didn’t take long for her to prove her mettle,” Mr. O’Connor said. “The following fall she was named the boys coach as well.”

Though it is uncommon to find a woman coaching boys, Ms. McKown is unfazed while handeling tough game situations with the boys.

Ms. McKown’s path to coaching was also filled with obstacles. She turned to water polo later in life, like Mr. Rodriguez. As a student, Ms. McKown petitioned her high school to start a girls water polo program. Without her effort, Bonita High may not have a girls water polo team. 

After freshman year of college as a walk-on, she was sidelined by surgery in her sophomore year at the University of La Verne. But Ms. McKown bounced back to be an All American the next 3 years. She then served as an assistant coach at her alma mater, Univeristy of La Verne, then went back to Bonita High as the junior varisty coach, finally landing with the Foothill Water Polo Club.

Andy Rosenberg, the girl’s coach at Bonita High School, remembers Mr.?Rodriguez’s skill and determination when he was a student at Bonita.

“Alex was probably the most talented male athlete I ever coached,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “Initially, Pepperdine had no interest in him. He was an accomplished community college player, but didn't have the size that attracts Division 1 coaches. Rather than giving up, he drove the 60 miles to Pepperdine to participate in open scrimmages, and ended up an All-American his first year. He has applied that ‘stick-to-it’ attitude to everything he has accomplished in the sport.”

Alex La, the head men’s coach at the University of La Verne, has crossed paths with the couple through the years as both a coach and as an official at matches.

“Rodriguez only knew me as an official—one he didn’t particularly care for, at that,” Coach La related. “But Kristin played for me at La Verne, and it was at her recommendation that I was asked to join the Foothill program. I’ve been coaching boys for the club ever since.”

Academic success and his achievement in water polo did not come naturally to Mr. Rodriguez, whose parents are from Cuba.

“No one told me how to get into college or where to apply. Now all I want is to help these kids get into college,” he said.

Ms. McKown echoes his sentiments and committment to helping local water polo players achieve success both in the pool and the classroom.

“The local colleges are amazing. But it's a big world out there,” she said. “I want my players to know they can go anywhere and do anything. We took about 25 kids from the club to Hungary to play over the summer. After some really tough play, one of them got out of the pool and shouted, ‘I want to move here!’ That’s the kind of thing that makes it all worth it."

To many 69-year-old Don Holbrook could be considered the “grandfather” of local water polo. As a coach for many years at Los Altos High School, he fondly remembers both Ms. McKown and Mr. Rodriguez as young players, remarking that he is not surprised both went on to successful coaching careers.

“When Alex started the Foothill Water Polo Club, he made a major impact on the quality of play in the San Gabriel Valley. He is so dynamic with his knowledge of the game, and has the ability to pass this on to anyone willing to listen,” Mr. Holbrook said. “And Kristin is a great motivator and teacher. She has the disposition necessary to allow the players to learn and make mistakes, and the guidance to help the students correct those mistakes.

“Coaching with them was the greatest coaching experience I’ve had,”?he said. “They are both outstanding coaches, but they are even better people,” he said.

—Marcus Dowd

[Editor’s note:?Marcus Dowd is a long-time Claremont resident and water polo fan. —KD]

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