Heidmous' return brings Air Force back as postseason contender
For 11 years Jeff Heidmous stayed away from the Air Force water polo team and watched the program he had built into an annual postseason contender descend into mediocrity. He likened it to watching the "windows fall of your house."
Heidmous had presided over a team that made four trips to the NCAA tournament and played in the WWPA conference championship game nine consecutive times from 1988 through 1996.
After the 1998 season Heidmous, then a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force, found that his duties as head coach and athletics department administrator did not leave enough time to do either job properly. Facing retirement from the Air Force, he moved into a role solely with the athletics department.
"It's hard," said Heidmous, witnessing the team's struggles. "When I took over the program there wasn't a lot of stability to it, you invest a lot of yourself, you think you are handing it off in good shape to somebody who can do it full time without all the burdens I had. This is your job, take care of this team, you think they are set up for success and then there isn't success."
The lack of success was such that Air Force's trip to the conference title game earlier this fall was the first this century. Their subsequent 9-7 win against UC-San Diego gave the team their first conference title and NCAA berth since 1994. Heidmous shows no ill will to the man who filled the time on the sidelines in his absence, Jeff Ehrlich, but his pride in Air Force water polo is ever present. He always knew what the program was capable of so one might expect he would jump at the chance to be back at the helm.
Despite his history with Air Force including, his years a player, a coach and serviceman - Heidmous was hesitant to re-take his old post. The academy decided to go in a different direction after the 2009 season and approached the former coach about a return on an interim basis for 2010.
"I'm there for the cadets, I'll do whatever I can," Heidmous told the athletic director. "'Just make sure the seniors are happy with that. Do they really want some coach walking on the deck first day of August their senior year and not even knowing their names?' The seniors said they wanted a change and were willing to take a chance with me."
He served that season as an interim coach and then late in 2011, it was decided that he would stay on full-time. By 2011 Heidmous was able to bring in former Pacific Head Coach and U.S. Olympic Team assistant Ryan Brown, setting up 2012 as the first year the squad would be firing on all cylinders. Did that mean another conference title and a trip to the NCAAs? Not exactly according to the new-old head coach.
"I'm a little surprised we got this far this season, this group of guys had not even made it to the final four of our conference, it wasn't a slow rise," Heidmous said. "In some ways I give them credit because they didn't think it was beyond them, they showed up and played."
"It was a culture shock," said senior goalie Mike Fish on Heidmous' return. "Conditioning went way up, we definitely got down to business. [This year] our senior class, we knew were very deep, we knew we could do something special. It was a big turnaround that I attribute a lot to the seniors on the program. We work hard in practice, that's the key and coach makes sure of it."
It takes a special person to play water polo for Air Force. You have to know what you're doing in the pool, but beyond that, meet similar academic standards to schools such as Stanford and Harvard and serve your country after graduation. Each layer of requirements, notes Heidmous, dwindles his recruiting pool.
"You have to have that never die attitude. Because of that, you try to instill in them that hustle is a talent. Hustle, teamwork and playing for your brother, the whole band of brothers thing," Heidmous said. "The academy isn't for everybody."
The return to the good old days were met with a sobering reality when the Falcons drew not only the top seed and host of the NCAA tournament in USC, but perhaps one of the best collection of young men to ever play college water polo. Taking on the reigning four-time NCAA champions proved a daunting task as the Falcons fell 18-7.
A valiant effort from Fish kept the Falcons afloat early on and they even led 2-1 in the first period. However, his 12 saves would not be enough as USC pulled away behind five goals from Kostas Genidounias and three from Nikola Vavic.
While the outcome was expected by many, the whole road here was not, least of all from Heidmous.
"[It's been] like a perfect storm, all blended together at the same time, a group of kids who were frustrated, who were willing to do anything, who when I say 'hop' they say 'how high'," Heidmous said. "There aren't many kids on my team that USC bothered to recruit," he concluded, laughing.
For the time being, all seems right in the world of Air Force Water Polo. They'll have one more game to conclude their run through the postseason and then for their coach, it will be back to business as usual, working on getting to the NCAAs yet again. Heidmous is back on his own terms, in place as coach for the foreseeable future.
"My last years of service to the academy, I wanted to do it face to face with the cadets. For a guy who had no intention of getting back in..." Heidmous said, reflecting on his improbable return, knowing he is happy to be back where it seems he has always belonged.