No matter the sport, the time or the circumstance, whenever La Costa Canyon and San Dieguito Academy face off, the stakes are simply more special. That will definitely be the case when the two local rivals match-up in boys’ water polo, Tuesday night, Oct. 10, at the Ecke YMCA Pool (7:30 p.m.).
In a sport where three of the top five ranked teams in the county reside in the North Coastal region as well as seven of the 20 CIF Division I programs, the Mavericks and Mustangs are pushing to get closer to the top echelon, a position now inhabited by the likes of Carlsbad, Cathedral Catholic and Vista. LCC, which competes at the CIF Division I level, is 6-7 this fall while San Dieguito, a relatively new program which just this year elevated from CIF Division III to II, brings a 12-4 mark to the table Tuesday and, like LCC, had not played its first Avocado League West contest at press time. Both head coaches know Tuesday’s showdown will be a good measuring stick of just where their programs are.
For fifth-year SDA head man Scott Kling, a victory would mean another step in the right direction. Taking over a team that had won just five games in three years, Kling has guided a steady Mustang ascent, including last fall’s trip to the CIF Division III finals where they lost to Helix in a tight contest. The ultimate goal is to reach Division I and be able to challenge the traditional powers come post-season. Tuesday night could be a rung on the ladder heading in that direction.
“We’ve never defeated anyone in the district — LCC, Torrey Pines or Canyon Crest,” says Kling matter-of-factly. “It would be a huge game for the entire school if we could win. Beating an established Division I team would kind of announce ‘Hey, we’re stepping up.’ It should be closer this year, I feel we’ve caught up a little bit.”
A tad newer to the series, second-year LCC head coach Grant Harrington (in his third season overall at the school) understands the significance but puts it in the context of the long-term view. “We don’t really talk about it that much because we like to focus game-to-game and we’ve got a pretty tough schedule — San Marcos, Canyon Crest and Torrey Pines — right in front of that one this year,” said Harrington. “But I know our team loves this game. Everyone has friends on both sides, there’s typically a nice crowd and it’s a good opportunity to test yourself in a high-intensity environment before CIF.
“Since we’ve had the advantage lately, it’s been a fun game but San Dieguito’s done a great job of developing a solid core of players and has some nice wins. I expect it to be competitive from start-to-finish.”
Featuring good overall team speed, SDA uses a quick-paced attacking game, looking to create offense early in the shot clock and keep opponents off balance. Senior Nate Conger and junior Matheus Gensler are the big guns but Kling calls depth his club’s chief weapon. “We can go 10 deep on our bench and still have the same type of fast, tenacious defenders that we have in the starting lineup,” says Kling. “We had a young team last year but they’ve grown together and while some of these guys aren’t going to be leading us in goals or steals, they allow us to keep a level of play that has made us more successful.”
Conger, a “fantastic driver,” has compiled 45 goals while Gensler, a power player capable of working at two-meters or up top, has netted 44. “Both excel at taking the game into their own hands but have also become proficient at bringing others into the offense,” notes Kling.
The Mavericks emphasis begins with the back line and senior goalie Gavin Simmons. According to Harrington, “We are a defense-oriented team and the focus is on protecting our cage first and foremost. Gavin gives us an aggressive presence in goal and provides the kind of support which allows us to use a more aggressive defensive strategy.” Simmons has racked up 124 saves this fall and a team-high 57 steals.
Aside from Simmons, other LCC standouts include senior captain Peter Germuska, the squad’s top scorer with 37 goals as well as 37 steals, and sophomore Carter Dean. “Peter has great experience and knows the game well,” said Harrington, “and Carter does an excellent job defensively on the perimeter where we typically match him up with the other team’s best player.”
No matter the outcome of this season’s clash, both coaches know there will still be ample ground to cover before they’re in the same neighborhood with North County’s elite programs. The two also agree on the reasons for the current gap.
“They have their own water, which allows them to develop club teams on site,” says Kling. “All of the elite programs have that type of situation. Their players are working together throughout the year and they’re constantly feeding themselves through the youth teams.”
Harrington added, “Having a club team out of their home pool is a huge advantage. They have the ability to control and maximize their practice times. Our three teams — varsity, JV and novice — all practice together from 7 to 9:15 p.m.”
So, both coaches clearly know where they want to be and what’s standing in their way. But first things first. And that comes Tuesday night when either Harrington or Kling will likely leave the pool feeling much better about where his group is in the process. The big winner in this one, however, should be North Coast water polo fans who will be treated to two improving programs, a collision of contrasting styles and several high-caliber individual players in what should be an entertaining atmosphere.