The boys’ water polo team at Laguna Beach High is looking to re-capture the passion that drove them to their first CIF title in school history last season. “It’s really hard for a team to repeat,” said Nolan McConnell. “We’ve got to find that hunger again.”
McConnell and his fellow seniors first developed that hunger after their sophomore campaign. “We were lifting really hard and training really hard,” he said.
“We wanted to make sure we were going to stay hungry,” said senior Erik Hendrickson. So they adopted the mentality to “just pretend like every game is your last, and you have to play your heart out.”
Coach Ethan Damato met with his team before this season began, and together they devised a list of 15 to 20 standards that champions should uphold if they want to remain on top. “I think they’ve taken ownership in the standards,” said last season’s CIF coach of the year.
The Breakers are anything but standard. McConnell, last year’s CIF player of the year and a pre-season all-Orange County selection, is one of the most potent offensive threats in the country, having finished second in the nation with 143 goals. And if his nine goals last Friday in the season opener against Villa Park are a peek into the future, he should eclipse last year’s total by mid-season.
A starter since his freshman year, Hendrickson is like a wall in front of the net, averaging more than 10 saves per game a year ago to earn first team all-CIF honors. Against Villa Park, he recorded a career high 19 saves. “He’s one of the top goalies in the county, in the country I think,” said Damato. “With him behind us, we feel confident in any defense we’re running.”
Adding to the mix is junior Riley Thomas, a Woodbridge High transfer who, along with McConnell, looks to give Laguna a powerful one-two offense punch that will be difficult to defend. “They make a really good combo up on top being a threat to the cage,” said Hendrickson.
The scoring ability of Thomas should make him a go-to guy if teams leave him unguarded to double and triple team McConnell. “If he’s open, it’s good news for us,” said McConnell.
“[Thomas] adds a lot to a team that is already experienced,” said Damato.
That experience includes a starting line up of five seniors and Thomas. First team all-League Nicky Brunner is solid at both ends of the pool, but his strength is his ability to draw ejections and give his team a man advantage. “Those six on fives are really important,” said McConnell, who thrives on finding or being the open player in those situations. “Someone’s open, and when I find them, it’s hard to beat,” McConnell said.
Second team all-League Samer Alkateb is a defensive specialist who can also find the back of the net when needed. “He’s a beast in there. He can shut anybody down,” said Hendrickson.
Camron Hauer and Tommy Renner are two more tough defenders who can score at any time. “I think we just have a lot more options and abilities to run different sets and different plays,” said Damato, who still maintains that defense and ball control wins championships. Nevertheless, Damato is looking forward to directing an offense that is “going to be a lot more explosive.”
Even with all that talent and experience, the Breakers have to keep their focus if they are going repeat at CIF. Last season, a loss to a team they should have beaten jolted them back to reality. “We got a little cocky last year,” said Hendrickson. “We’ve got to make sure we don’t need one of those wake up calls [this year].”
Laguna began the season ranked first in their division and sixth in Orange County. They play their usual tough schedule that includes five of the top seven teams in their division. And they already beat third ranked division II Villa Park in a thrilling 13-10 season opener last Friday.
This weekend the Breakers are the only division III team and one of 16 schools invited to play in the inaugural Santa Barbara Invitational, Sept. 16-17. They have a favorable draw, and, with any luck, could face the defending division I champion and Orange County’s top ranked team, Mater Dei, for the title. “We were very fortunate to be invited to that tournament,” said Damato. “We’re going up there with high expectations.”