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Longtime Coaches Still Inspired by Team Spirit after 40 Years

Liz LaPlante and Denny Harper celebrate over four decades of coaching at UC San Diego

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Liz LaPlante and Denny Harper’s coaching anniversaries were celebrated at the Faculty Club, hosted by Athletics Director Earl Edwards.

There is an energy in the air among scholar-athletes in anticipation of the chance to compete against a new roster of high-level athletes at peer universities. On July 1, UC San Diego entered into a new arena by joining the Big West Conference in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division 1.

“You can already tell the transition to D1 is boosting performance of the teams and enhancing the quality of recruits,” said Jack Turner, former goalie for the Men’s Water Polo team. “If we want to be one of the top universities in the U.S. in terms of athletics, academics and culture, this is the direction we need to take.”

Two coaches on campus have had the unique experience of witnessing the continual growth of UC San Diego Athletics for over four decades. Liz LaPlante began coaching the Women’s Tennis team in 1979, and led the Tritons to their first national title just six years later—one of four her teams would earn. In 1980, Denny Harper signed on to coach Men’s Water Polo, earning NCAA top 10 status within just a year. Throughout their prolific tenure, what has kept both coaches committed is the unwavering team spirit of their players.

40-love: Liz LaPlante

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Liz LaPlante began coaching the Women’s Tennis team in 1979, and led the Tritons to their first national title just six years later—one of four her teams would earn. Photo taken pre-pandemic by Lorelei Ritzert.

Very few have experienced the trajectory of UC San Diego Athletics like Liz LaPlante, who possesses the longest tenure of any coach on campus. She celebrates her 41st anniversary as the Women’s Tennis coach this year. LaPlante “fell into the job” when she was 21 years old, with no intention of spending her entire career at the university. But as each new cadre of young, talented scholar-athletes arrive, and camaraderie begins to build, she has found it impossible to find a stopping point.

“The best part of my job is seeing how the team chemistry evolves and lifelong friendships develop—some are 50 years old now and still good friends,” said LaPlante. “Knowing that I had a small part of making that happen is meaningful.”

LaPlante begins each season by setting an intention. She leads the team in reading a poem that her Dad gave to her when she was in junior high. Each player recites a line and they hold a conversation about confidence and showing positive body language. This year building community is more important than ever; with six first-year recruits joining, nearly half the team is new.

“It’s so great to have this community of girls, like a sisterhood; we are a family,” said Chloe Wight, a senior on the Women’s Tennis team and a human biology major. “I’ve been on the team for five years, and it’s like a new era; they bring a new energy.”

This year, LaPlante offered the first full scholarship to an incoming student-athlete for fall 2020. She explained that the support will help draw a higher caliber of players to coincide with an increased level of competition in Division 1 matches. But what truly makes players stand out is the level of integrity, perseverance and academic skills, explained LaPlante.

“To be able to play sports like this and dedicate so much time to be out here and also their studies really takes a unique kid,” she said.

High tide: Denny Harper

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Denny Harper was hired to coach the Men’s Water Polo team in 1980 and celebrates his 40th year in 2020; he also led the Women’s Water Polo team for 16 years. Photo taken pre-pandemic by Erik Jepsen/University Communications.

As a kid growing up in Orange County, Denny Harper was always swimming in the ocean. His love of water and fluid, go-with-the-flow attitude led him to his dream job. He was coaching club water polo at San Diego State University when he was offered the position of head coach for the Men’s Water Polo team at UC San Diego in 1980. The university was just 20 years old and Harper was not much older himself. He could never have predicted that 40 years later his coaching career would still be going strong.

“I’ve grown up with this university,” said Harper, who also led the Women’s Water Polo team for 16 years. “I ended up staying and going out of my way to continue to be able to work here because of the scholar-athletes I coached.”

What keeps him dedicated to his career year after year are the bonds forged with each new team. Initially, Harper was not much older than the scholar-athletes he coached. Four decades later, their friendships have endured. “I’ve gone to their weddings, I’ve seen their kids grow up—that’s something I can’t put a price tag on.”

While a lot has changed during his tenure—from the addition of two Olympic-sized pools at Canyonview Aquatic Center and the increased emphasis on athletic strength training—what has remained constant is the caliber of scholar-athletes that UC San Diego attracts. According to Harper, they are overachievers who embody an unparalleled work ethic in the classroom and in the pool.

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Jack Turner just finished his last season as goalie for the Men’s Water Polo team. Now he will journey to Japan to train with the Men’s Senior National Water Polo Team for the Tokyo Olympics. Photo taken pre-pandemic by Derrick Tuskan.

Jack Turner is one of the best examples. The Men’s Water Polo goalie just finished his last season, completed final exams for the last courses in his college career and is soon journeying to Japan to train with the Men’s Senior National Water Polo Team for the Tokyo Olympics. However, his path to the prestigious competition was certainly not without waves.

In Aug. 2017, Turner was involved in a rollover truck accident, which resulted in a serious fracture to his neck. In most cases the injury causes victims to become quadriplegic or lose their ability to breathe, yet Turner was on his feet and back in the water after three months of rehabilitation. However, the accident happened two weeks before the start of the season, forcing him to sit out. To make up for lost time, he decided to take on a second major to extend his career as a scholar-athlete, studying aerospace engineering and international studies/political science.

“I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” said Turner about being on the team. “I’ve experienced things I never thought I would have a chance to do, and met some really amazing people. All around it has changed my life for the better.”

Transition to Division 1

On July 1, UC San Diego was officially welcomed into the Big West Conference, along with California State University, Bakersfield, increasing the total number of Conference institutions to 11. The campus begins an NCAA four-year reclassification period that will conclude on July 1, 2024. UC San Diego’s programs will be included in all Big West round robin sports schedules beginning with the 2020-21 academic year. Learn more about the university’s move to Division 1.