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Mater Dei boys’ water polo prevails over Huntington Beach in season opener

Saturday’s nonleague season opener between the Huntington Beach High boys’ water polo team and Mater Dei had more intrigue than a typical first game.

Junior Cooper Haddad, a UCLA commit and the Monarchs’ second-leading scorer last year, recently transferred from Mater Dei to Huntington Beach, Oilers coach Sasa Branisavljevic said.

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Additonally, Mater Dei senior Warren Loth said the Monarchs found out two weeks ago that first-year head coach Milos Skaljac, a former assistant coach at USC who also formerly coached at the Huntington Beach-based Vanguard Aquatics club, was being put on paid administrative leave for unspecified reasons. The coach currently in charge for Mater Dei is assistant Brian Anderson, who used to be the head coach at Huntington Beach High.

Anderson also is the 12-and-under coach for Vanguard, which has Branisavljevic as its president and coach of the older age groups.

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These factors aside, a water polo game is still just a water polo game. Mater Dei started strong and held the lead throughout, earning a 9-4 victory at the Monarchs’ pool.

Mater Dei senior Kaden Kaneko, a Huntington Beach resident, led the Monarchs with four goals. Loth, a Cal commit who lives in Newport Beach, had three goals and five steals.

The Monarchs, the defending CIF Southern Section Division 1 champions, are definitely a different team. Newport Beach resident Jack Seybold, last year’s Division 1 Player of the Year, graduated and is now at Stanford. And longtime coach Chris Segesman resigned last December.

But this year’s Mater Dei team still has 12 seniors, including goalkeeper Garrett Bruening, a Costa Mesa resident who made 10 saves Saturday. Senior Connor McManigal, a Newport Beach resident, added a goal as did senior Cameron Reagan, who lives in Huntington Beach. Senior Ian Minsterman, another Cal commit, had a steal and three assists for Mater Dei, which converted four of 10 power-play chances.

“We just need to work on our offense a little more, let our defense translate to offense,” Loth said.

Kaneko said the Monarchs have used it as motivation since they found out that Skaljac was being put on leave.

“A lot of the teams are counting us out,” Kaneko said. “But we’re trying to show that just because this is happening, it doesn’t mean we’re not going to do well. We’re just trying to push forward as much as we can.”

Goal-scorers for Huntington Beach included senior Peter Loomis, junior Josh Bowman and sophomores Ethan Crooks and Chase Dodd. Crooks, the son of Edison High girls’ soccer coach Kerry Crooks, sank a six-on-five goal at the fourth-quarter buzzer, but it was the Oilers’ only six-on-five goal in six opportunities.

“It’s early in the season, so six-on-five is always the last portion or last element to everybody’s game,” Branisavljevic said. “We haven’t practiced it that much, but once we start putting more attention and focus to it, I think it’s going to start shifting our way more. Obviously, that’s a big portion of water polo, six-on-five and five-on-six for that matter.

“I saw good energy today, good camaraderie. I think we followed through with some of the defensive elements that we talked about. There’s definitely lots of areas of improvement.”

Junior goalkeeper Jacob Pyle had 12 saves and two steals for Huntington Beach. Reilly Pfeiffer, a senior, had an assist and a team-best three steals.

Branisavljevic said that the Oilers are young this year, as only Bowman and junior Myles Simpson received significant playing time last season. Huntington Beach does have two players — sophomore Tyler Padua and freshman James Rozolis-Hill — who were on Vanguard’s 14-and-under team that won gold at the USA Water Polo Junior Olympics this past summer.

The Oilers have a good early-season test when they play at Santa Margarita at 4 p.m. Tuesday.

“That’s going to be a big game for us right off the bat,” Branisavljevic said. “We’ll see how we match up against them.”

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