A teenage Johnny Bega was perfectly happy playing soccer, when his older brother ruined land-based sports for him.
“Hey, you should try water polo,” Mike Bega said. “It’s like soccer, but in the water.”
Johnny jumped in for the Atwater High Falcons and immediately took to the physical, aquatic sport.
“I loved the water,” said Bega, now the head coach of the UC Merced women’s and men’s water polo teams. “I must have been needing the water. I tried it, and I never looked back. I was never getting out of the water from that point on.”
His devotion yielded big results. Bega became a two-time All-American at Atwater High, an All-American at Merced College in 1993, and an honorable mention All-American for one season at Long Beach State.
Bega was recruited by Long Beach State right out of high school, but stayed home to play for Merced College and longtime coach Bob Pollitt.
Merced College was a good fit financially. It was an even better fit socially and competitively, as Bega was joined by a handful of fellow Atwater High and Merced High players he already knew.
“I don’t know how I would have done if I had gone straight to Long Beach State,” Bega said. “From a maturity standpoint, and an academic one, coming to Merced College first was a great choice. Athletically? You never know how good you are until you show up. And then it’s always tougher to compete than you think. But it was my chance, so I pushed myself.”
Bega credits his Merced College coaches and professors—as well his old lifeguarding coach Bill Halpin Sr., the first ever women’s water polo coach at the college—for encouraging him to reach beyond his potential.
“That translated into great results for me academically,” Bega said. “And as I played more and more, even as it got harder, I got stronger. I could (play and study) really well.”
Bega did eventually get that D-I scholarship and had a successful career at Long Beach State. Soon after graduation, he began coaching at San Jose State as an assistant and eventually as head coach. He later coached at Cal as an assistant, winning a national title in 2016. Bega has also coached for club teams and youth national teams, and overseas.
“I took advantage of all the opportunities that were out there and just ran with it,” he said.
Everywhere Bega went, one thought always stayed with him: Give something back.
While living in Colorado the past few years, Bega directed camps and clinics all over the country, as well as at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. While there, he heard from a friend that UC Merced was ready to offer water polo as an intercollegiate sport.
“Wait. They have a UC in Merced?” he joked.
Bega felt immediately he had another program build in him. Knowing the depth of local talent in the area, he jumped at the chance.
“I believe that’s why the UC Merced chancellor and athletics director want water polo here—that rich history as a water polo hotbed,” he said.
This is Bega’s second year leading the men’s and women’s programs. During the inaugural seasons in 2022-23, the men worked to level up their club team while the women started from zero. Bega recruited players from campus via open tryouts.
“But we made it happen,” he said.
The women’s team finished in first place in the Collegiate Water Polo Association’s Club Sierra Pacific “B” Division Championship and third in the NAIA Water Polo Finals. The men also finished third in the NAIA. Both teams will eventually compete in NCAA Division II.
In 2023-24, Bega is rolling out his first recruiting classes.
“This area has always been very attractive for its water polo,” Bega said. “Now they have a UC, which is an incredible academic magnet for athletes. It’s a win-win situation. To come back now and really coach in this area is a little dream come true.”