In the wake of last year’s exodus of talented graduating seniors, the boys’ water polo team is looking for young players to step up. With their offensive attack limited, the team will further focus attention on defensive effort and world-class goalie Sam Krutonog ’18.
Head of Aquatics Brian Flacks has shown that he is capable of coaching teams to winning records even after the graduation of a superstar. Two years ago, attacker Ben Hallock ’16 was widely considered the best high school player in the country. The following year, Flacks managed to coach the Hallock-less team to finish 25-2 overall and 3-1 in league play.
Last year’s graduating class included 10 seniors and five starters, three of whom will play at UCLA this year. During their four year tenure, those seniors were part of what may have been the most successful run in school’s water polo history.
“They lost nine games in four years,” Flacks said. “What they’ve done, in terms of water polo, is unprecedented, and what they’ve done, in terms of the culture they created for this program, is also very special.”
Not only is the current team young, but it is also inexperienced. Although Flacks believes that the younger players are talented enough to step up, he does acknowledge that injuries to key players last season made it difficult to dole out playing time to younger team members.
“Last year was a weird year because, after the 7th game, our starting center Felix [Brozyna-Vilim], who’s now at UCLA, went down with a knee injury,” Flacks said. “In order to hold our seeding in CIF throughout the year, it became very difficult to get more playing time distributed.”
In spite of this complication, Flacks believes that the team will be ready for their first game Aug. 30 thanks to their year-round training schedule and offseason opportunities and training, which afford players time to prepare for the season. He also underscored the onus that the younger players have to take on more responsibility, with the lineup slightly depleted of experienced talent.
“I don’t think that the young kids have an option but to step up, or it’s going to be a long year for us,” Flacks said.
While Flacks concedes that the team is less experienced than it has been in a few years, he figures that players will be focused and excited to get opportunities that they had not previously had, citing enthusiasm and vigor as the favorable aspects of inexperience.
“The energy and excitement that they’re going to have to play because of the lack of opportunities they’ve had in the past will really excite them and help to drive them and further enhance the culture that the seniors brought to us,” Flacks said.
George Avakian ’20, Nolan Krutonog ’20 and Nico Tierney ’20 got an opportunity to play on the U.S. men’s cadet national team at the Darko Cukic Memorial tournament in Serbia, helping the team to win the gold medal with a 9-6 win over Croatia.
Flacks stressed that age does not determine leadership. Young players are just as well-equipped to be leaders as those with more experience if they have team-player qualities.
“Age has never been important to us ever,” Flacks said. “It’s how capable you are, your willingness to a be a member of our team and to follow the standards of our program.”
The advent of goalkeeper Krutonog last year as one of the best players in the country allows the team to shift to a more defensive strategy, with Krutonog having proven extremely reliable as the last line of defense.
“We might have the best player in the United States on our team,” Flacks said. “Sam Krutonog in the goal may be the best player in the United States and the most dominant player in the United States. I think that his ability to do what he does in the cage and hopefully our ability to play defense and grind it out on offense puts us in a position to be really successful.”
With the team’s offensive attack weaker than it has been in past years and the strength of the team having shifted to defense and goalkeeping, players admit that their margin of victory will be lower than it used to be. The wins will be of ground-it-out type, and players do not expect to dominate by 15 or 20 goals like in years past.
“Every team that goes in to play us is going to think that they have a chance to beat us, just looking at [the matchup] on paper,” Krutonog said. “Our strategy does definitely change this year because we know that it’s going to be a little bit tougher for us to score goals.”
Attacker Pierce Maloney ’19, one of the young talented players expected to improve and step into a bigger role offensively, attributes special importance to leadership by committee.
“The leadership doesn’t really rest in a couple of our hands,” Maloney said. “We have really made an effort as a team to unite around each other rather than an individual.”
Krutonog also mentioned that one of the team’s most essential qualities is that any player can take the reins and be the trailblazer through tough situations.
“The greatest part of this team is that there’s so many guys who can lead us down the stretch,” Krutonog said.
The group is tight-knit, and team members have spent time together this summer outside of training.
“Before and after practice, we hang out all the time, especially during summer,” Krutonog said. “We hang out at eachother’s houses. Ryan Neapole ’19 lives down the street. I have a house down the street from school. A lot of times teammates come over to my house, or [Neapole’s] house, or Keller [Maloney]’s house. We definitely have some great team bonding.”