It’s not Webster’s first definition of “team” (a group of people who compete in a sport, game, etc., against another group), but the second (a group of people who work together) that really defines the collection of dedicated Laguna Beach water polo players who have fought their way to the number two ranking in this week’s CIF Division 2 poll. “It’s been a great transformation to watch this team become a true team,” said Coach Ethan Damato.
The two-time defending Division 3 champion Breakers were rewarded for their success with a promotion to Division 2 after last season, a move many thought would put their shot at winning three straight out of reach, especially considering the graduation of Nolan McConnell, the team’s leading scorer for the last four years.
McConnell’s departure “makes us stronger,” said senior Camron Hauer. “I think it’s a lot easier without just one dominant player. Last year, I’d only drive if I thought Nolan wasn’t going to shoot.” Now “everyone’s trying to do more on the offense,” Hauer said.
A decisive 11-6 victory at home last Monday over division rival and fifth-ranked Murrieta Valley has put Laguna in the number two spot, and put to bed any doubts that they can compete in division two. “We knew we were going to have to work hard to get in the position we are now,” said senior Riley Thomas, who admits the Breaker’s six-on-five offense is “not where it should be yet, but it’s slowly getting there.”
Even so, this year’s team, at 12-6, has scored five more goals than last year’s team did through its first 18 games. Five players have tallied more than 20 goals, including Thomas’ 48 and Hauer’s 34, and seven have at least 10. “Everybody brings something to the table,” said senior Caleb Scott, whose 30 goals through Monday rank third on the team.
In spite of early season wins over division two-ranked Villa Park and Dos Pueblos, and northern California’s Acalanes, Laguna’s season got off to an uncharacteristic 4-6 start after 10 games, including overtime loses to top-ranked Aguora and north coast power Miramonte of Orinda.
Their turnaround began nearly a month ago, when they rallied for two fourth-quarter goals against University to win 7-6, after Damato asked them before the start of the period, “Are we going to find a way to win one of these?”
A starter on both of Laguna’s last two title teams, Hauer expected the current group to hold it’s own at division two this season. “I always thought that we were going to compete,” he said, “but it’s just been recently where I think we have an actual shot at winning this division.”
Hauer was referring to the team’s string of eight straight victories through last Monday, including impressive wins over Coronado and then second-ranked Foothill. Laguna’s resurgence has given them newfound confidence. “It’s pretty clear that we’re a top team in the division,” said Scott.
“I think it’s just the guys finding their identity as a team and finding a way to win,” said Damato. “Their progression this year has been more than any other team I’ve coached thus far.”
Team members know progress is also a product of their coach’s efforts. “He works harder than the players, to be honest,” said Hauer, who credits Damato’s meticulous preparation and attention to detail with keeping Laguna competitive. “I always know what the other team is going to do; because he’s nailed it so well.”
Opponents last season often double and triple-teamed McConnell, daring the other Breakers to beat them. Now “anyone on our team can attack and score,” said Scott. “I think that definitely makes us a harder team to defend.”
Damato said this team is focused on getting back to CIF finals. “They don’t want to be the group that lets down. They want to hold up their end and continue that winning tradition.”
If they can pull it off, “It would be pretty phenomenal, considering all the people we lost last year,” Damato said.
Photos by Robert Campbell