The women’s water polo team competed in their first-ever conference championship game May 2, 2021. Danielle Montenegro, new water polo head coach, guided the Keydets to a second-place conference finish. Her selection as program head coach was announced by the VMI athletic department in July 2020.
“It’s a strange time to be anywhere,” Montenegro said in spring 2021, talking about moving and starting a new job in the middle of COVID-19. A California native, she’s spent most of her life in the greater Los Angeles area as a coach and business owner. She made a big move in 2019—geographically speaking—when she took the head coach job at Urbana University in Ohio. Before she coached her first Urbana game, coronavirus became a part of life—resulting in the university’s closure. Montenegro was left with a choice: Go back to California, or look for something closer?
She heard about the job at VMI—about six hours away—and applied. She liked everything she heard about the Institute in the interview and had also heard good things from her assistant at Urbana, Sierra (Payne) Mullet ’17, former Keydet water polo player. Urbana’s closing mere months after she moved across the country was “stressful,” she said. “I hadn’t even been there for a full year. … I didn’t know how things were going to open … if colleges were going to be hiring. I felt extremely grateful once I was offered this position.”
Montenegro figured there were a few things she’d have to adapt to at VMI, but she didn’t know simple conversation with her players would involve learning “an entirely new vocabulary.” The players would “tell stories, and I [couldn’t] follow a thing they were saying,” she remembered. “They just had to continue to keep teaching me, like ‘Oh, SRC is this,’ and ‘Oh, BR is our brother rats.’”
She went all-in learning VMI-isms, even changing her clocks to military time. In the months before his recent retirement, Col. Eric Hutchings ’77, former special assistant to the athletic director for military affairs, was a big help; Montenegro met him early on, and he happily provided many translations and explanations. Andrew Bretscher, then-head swim coach, was also helpful. By late spring 2021, she knew she had gotten into the swing of things when her players told her, “Coach, you’re using our lingo!”
COVID-19 made practicing particularly challenging for both water polo and the swim and dive teams. The teams normally share a very limited resource—Clark King Pool—and are in the water at the same time. Pandemic restrictions meant the teams could not mix, resulting in about half as much time practice time in the pool.
The Aquatic Center, which broke ground in late 2020, will be a “game-changer,” Montenegro said. Even without COVID-19 restrictions, the size of Clark King Pool limits practice times.
“To have more space is going to be big for us; we’ll be able to have our full practices,” she said. Once completed, the deep water, stadium-like pool facility housed in the Aquatic Center will be one of the best in the region. About 25% of the Aquatic Center cost, or around $10 million, is funded through private support.
“Most of us are from very similar areas. I would say there’s at least five or six of them who ... we can name places and we know what we’re talking about. One of them played at a high school I used to coach at ... some of the other girls played at Rose Bowl, which is a club I used to coach at. We definitely have some connections.”Danielle Montenegro, head water polo coach
Alumni have also shown great support for the water polo program. Some of the biggest supporters are Cathie and Jay Wegrzyn ’66, who live in the San Diego area. Soon after Montenegro started, she spoke with them on the phone. One of the players is also from San Diego, and most of the players are from California—where the sport “is huge,” Montenegro said. For Montenegro, this eased her transition a bit. Just one player on the 2020-21 roster was not from California, and several were from the greater LA area. Before she got up to speed with VMI’s “lingo,” she had SoCal in common with her players.
“Most of us are from very similar areas. I would say there’s at least five or six of them who … we can name places and we know what we’re talking about. One of them played at a high school I used to coach at,” Montenegro said. “Some of the other girls played at Rose Bowl, which is a club I used to coach at. We definitely have some connections.”
As a kid, Montenegro played soccer and swam before getting into water polo, “which is kind of a combination of soccer and swimming.” She competed for her alma mater, Occidental College, and began coaching for a local club while in college.
After earning her bachelor’s degree in kinesiology from Occidental, she wanted to stay in sports and fitness. She became a physical therapy assistant—and continued coaching. “It’s always been another job I’ve done on top of everything else,” she explained about coaching.
After she became a physical therapy assistant, she spent several years working fulltime in that field, including co-owning a gym.
She realized she “missed coaching” and, over time, learned “there is a path to do it fulltime.” She returned to school, earned a master’s degree in applied exercise science from Concordia University Chicago, and began coaching fulltime.
Montenegro has coached college, community college, high school, and club teams. The most challenging, she said, was a team of 12 and under boys. “I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to keep 8, 9, 10-year-olds engaged. That’s extremely difficult!” she remembered.
Montenegro does use her physical therapy and kinesiology education and experience in coaching. She has found focusing on essentials works out best in the end.
“Overall, you teach the same things. It’s always basics; it’s always fundamentals,” she said. “And as long as you have those things in hand, your kids do well.”
Aside from the first-ever appearance in the conference championship game, Montenegro’s fundamental focus bore other solid results, both athletically and academically. Two players, McKenna Imset ’21 and Sydney Shettleroe ’23, were named to the All-MAAC team. Imset and Genevieve Petrassi ’22 were named All-Tournament players. The 2020-21 year also showed high achievement academically, with the highest term GPAs in the past five years, with five players earning spots on the MAAC All-Academic Water Polo Team.
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