For a program that is supposed to be taking baby steps, the San Dieguito Academy boys water polo team took a giant leap forward in 2016.
In just their sixth season as a varsity team, the Mustangs went all the way to the CIF San Diego Section Division III championship match, where they almost knocked off senior-laden, top-seeded Helix before settling for a second-place finish.
The youthful SDA squad — which had just one senior starter and used a sophomore goalie that began that season in junior varsity — was tied with Helix, 5-5, through three quarters on Nov. 19 at La Jolla High, but the Highlanders pulled away for an 8-6 victory.
It marked the first time the Mustang program had even seen the semifinals.
“We played well the entire game,” said fourth-year SDA coach Scott Kling. “The way I look at it, we didn’t lose as much as we learned in that game, and it will be great experience if we get back next year.
While sophomore Matheus Gensler had a hat trick for the Mustangs, and juniors Carl Winner (two goals) and Nate Conger (one) rounded out their team’s scoring, Helix relied on a pair of seniors to seal the deal. Wes Babbitt finished with seven goals in his team’s win and Highlander goalie Dennis Sweeney had five of his 12 saves in the decisive fourth period.
It was the only time in the postseason run that SDA wasn’t the better team down the stretch as, after a first-round bye, the third-seeded Mustangs erased a second-half deficit to defeat Classical Academy, 11-7, in the quarterfinals then trailed in the final quarter of a 12-9 semifinal victory over No. 2 Olympian.
The win over Classical, SDA’s third of 2016, came as a result of the halftime adjustments that the Mustangs executed to perfection.
“No matter what sport you are playing it’s really hard to beat a team three times, because they know how you want to attack them,” Kling told the Encinitas Advocate. “The kids responded really well, implementing the modifications that we made. In that game, they applied everything they had been working on all year.”
In coming from behind to beat Olympian, it was a true team effort on offense that carried the Mustangs. Though Gensler had five goals and an assist, when SDA needed late scoring, other players stepped up.
“Playing Olympian, we didn’t really know what to expect and we came in confident, so the game started getting away from us,” Kling explained. “But our guys are really resilient.
“The thing that is really great about our team is that Matheus is our leading scorer, but we are pretty balanced after that and all of our guys are able to score. In that fourth quarter against Olympian, they tried to shut him down and our other guys were able to take advantage of that, push up and get some quick goals to help us come back.”
Kling added that sophomore goalie Dylan Herrera, who was in because senior standout Conner Dahl suffered a late-season injury, had many of his 11 saves in the final period to help the Mustangs hold on. Herrera added 12 blocks in the title match.
Though most of the squad’s goals came from underclassman — of SDA’s top nine scorers only one, Sam Dumont (63 goals, second on the team), is a senior — those young players grew up quickly during a rugged regular season.
Playing league matches against Carlsbad (who played in the Open Division playoff tournament), Torrey Pines and Canyon Crest (the second and third seeds in the Division I tourney), the Mustangs held their own to finish 19-13 in the regular season.
“They learned a lot playing those teams tough and they really grew from it,” Kling said of his squad. “There’s a pretty good chance we will move up to Division II next season … and the guys are excited about that. The culture of this team has become contagious.”
When Kling took over the SDA program four season ago, there were just 20 boys playing water polo. He told the freshman that year that they would be that start of building the program. In 2016, the Mustang program featured 44 boys.
Gensler paced the varsity squad with 104 goals and added 33 assists in 2016, while Dumont was the second-leading scorer. Junior Kekoa Wheeler tallied 42 times and dished 38 assists — including two in the championship contest — and Conger added 37 goals and 33 assists for the season. Winner had 28 goals despite missing nearly half the season with an injury.
On the other end of the pool, Dahl had 215 saves in 24 games before going down and junior Wesley Tyler was SDA’s defensive stopper.
“He’s our two-meter defender so he took on the opponent’s best player in every game,” Kling said of Tyler. “He’s like our field general and when he was out of the game, the team suffered.”
In growing the program, Kling has focused on his building up his players outside of the pool as well. The Mustangs come together for charity events such as their bike drive on Dec. 4. That day, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the SDA parking lot, the team will collect and restore gently used bicycles to donate to the Community Resource Center for its annual Holiday Baskets.
“The word has gotten out on campus that it’s an exciting team and we are like a family,” Kling continued. “Another thing is, we aren’t like some teams where it is polo or nothing. The kids can do things like band or student government and I encourage that, even if it means they have to miss a game or something once in a while. I want them to be better people, not just better players.
“I’m trying to make the program what I would have wanted it to be when I was growing up playing.”
Kling, 42, played at Brea Orinda and coached at La Habra and Brea in the mid-1990s. He moved to North County with his wife, who teaches at an elementary school in San Marcos, where she grew up.
After 15 years away from coaching, Kling decided to get back into it, thinking he would land a job with a JV or club team. But SDA was looking for a coach at the same time, and four years later it looks like a match made in heaven.