Boys' water polo preview: Title Chase now on at CdM

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When he was younger, Chase Watson was a Seahawk.

Sure, at 6-foot-7 and 250 pounds, the Corona del Mar High senior center now definitely deserves to be upgraded to a Sea King.

But Watson used to play football for Newport-Mesa Junior All-American. Back then, he played not center but the guy a few spots more outside, the tight end.

"I was always playing with guys two years older, because I was just so big," Watson said. "Finally, at the end of the sixth grade, I exceeded the weight limit. I couldn't really play anymore, unless I wanted to play with really older guys."

At the time, Watson lived around the corner from Newport Harbor High, and he popped in to see what the junior polo program was about. He moved to Balboa Island before high school, and he entered the CdM program.

"My dad [James, better known as 'Watty'] played in high school," Watson said. "I just tried it out and I liked it and I stuck with it."

CdM Coach Barry O'Dea is happy that these stars aligned. Watson is now a three-year varsity player at center for CdM. This year he can prove that he is one of the best, if not the best, high school two-meter men in Southern California.

Watson was already getting there when he scored 68 goals last year, on his way to first-team All-Pacific Coast League and All-CIF Southern Section Division I honors. He helped lead the Sea Kings to the CIF Southern Section Division I semifinals.

This year, as CdM moves to Division II and is in contention for a title, he is the guy who could help carry the Sea Kings on his broad shoulders.

"We want to be able to build an offense around Chase," O'Dea said. "I don't think anyone can guard him. He'll see a lot of drops just because of how good he is, and how big and strong he is. Last year was a breakout year. I think he'll establish himself as one of the top two-meter men in high school."

Watson won't be able to sneak under the radar anymore, as he could last year when teams tried to figure out how to stop two-time Newport-Mesa Player of the Year Max Bergeson, now at Cal. This year, teams are indeed more likely to drop on Watson.

He knows it, but he feels like opponents are going to have to pick their poison.

"A lot of guys have improved this off-season," Watson said. "We have tons of great outside shooters on our team. I'm not really worried about it."

Count Watson among the improved players. This summer, he won a gold medal at the boys' 18-and-under Junior Olympics with his club team, SoCal. He also trained with the U.S. junior national team, something he's been doing the last couple of years now.

Watson nearly made the team for the Junior Pan American Championships, which took place earlier this month in Florida. He said he was one of the last players cut from the team, but it doesn't bother him too much.

After all, he's also humble. Watson knows he still needs to improve his swimming technique as he gets back on defense. He said in the past he's been "a liability" in that area but he's working to improve.

"I'm better on offense than defense, but I feel like I'm a pretty good shot-blocker," said Watson, whose younger brother Colby is a sophomore attempting to make CdM's varsity polo team as well. Sister Chrissy, a junior, plays volleyball for the sea Kings.

Watson also showed his humility as he made sure to mention CdM junior coach Ted Bandaruk and former frosh/soph coach Kyle Gorham, now an assistant at Long Beach State, who both helped develop Watson's raw size into a big talent at two meters.

Watson is considering joining Gorham with the 49ers. He said USC, UCLA and Cal are also in his top four college choices.

First, he wants to lead the Sea Kings to big things in his senior year. He's also aware of CdM's history of developing excellent centers, starting with U.S. men's senior national team member and former Cal standout John Mann.

Tom Pearson (Cal) and Artie Dorr (UCLA) were also Sea Kings mainstays at two meters in the past several years. Lucas Reynolds, who started at center in Watson's first year on varsity in 2008, also now plays for the Bruins.

Mann and Dorr played together at CdM, helping the Sea Kings win three straight Division II titles from 1999-2001.

They haven't won a CIF title since, but now Watson can build his own case for set supremacy.

"It'd be cool to be remembered as one of the good two-meter men at CdM," he said, before his humility kicked in again. "At least, that's what I'm going for."

Here is a look at the five Newport-Mesa schools:

CORONA DEL MAR

Coach: Barry O'Dea (sixth year)

2009 record: 24-6, 5-0 in the Pacific Coast League (first place)

Returning starters: Chase Watson (Sr.), center; Bruce Bearer (Sr.), goalie

Key newcomers: Hayden Leach (Sr.), center defender; Emery Molnar (Sr.), center; Evan Ramsey (Sr.), driver; Miles Carpenter (Sr.), driver; Chris Robertson (Sr.), driver; Will Havercroft (Sr.), driver; Ben Zepfel (Jr.), utility; Ari Marks (Jr.), driver; Wesley Sherburne (Jr.), driver

Key dates: South Coast Tournament, Sept. 23-25; SoCal Invitational, Oct. 8-9; Newport Harbor (home), Oct. 23; NorCal Invitational, Oct. 29-30

Outlook: Watson will definitely be a go-to guy at center for the Sea Kings a year after scoring 68 goals. He will need to stand as tall as his height as the club lost its top two players — Pacific Coast League Co-MVPs Max Bergeson and Michael Liao. Bergeson was the Newport-Mesa Player of the Year each of the past two seasons. CdM is now in Division II and will try to make its first CIF final appearance under O'Dea. It's a good sign that they also return their goalie in Bearer, who earned his way into a starting spot late last year. O'Dea said he will look for more senior leadership from guys like Leach and Molnar, as well as Ramsey, a driver who O'Dea said is coming off a strong summer. O'Dea also possesses two lefties in Carpenter and Robinson.

COSTA MESA

Coach: Justin Taylor (fourth year)

2009 record: 1-3 in the Orange Coast League (fourth)

Returning starters: James Lewis (Jr.), center; Mitchell Grandia (Jr.), goalie

Key newcomers: Wyatt Ferris (So.), center defender; Jamie Sacco (Jr.), utility

Key dates: Costa Mesa tournament, Sept. 24-25; Oct. 13 vs. Sage Hill at Corona del Mar; Oct. 27 at Estancia.

Outlook: Taylor called it a rebuilding year after Costa Mesa graduated two of its top three scorers in center Joey Dinh and Chingiz Bigalimov. Those two players and Lewis all tied for the team lead with 46 goals last year. Grandia is the other returning starter after winning the starting goalie job midway through last season. Taylor hesitated to list more than a couple key newcomers; he is looking for players to step up and the 6-foot-3 Ferris and the well-rounded Sacco could be two of those players. The Mustangs will have to battle to improve last year's fourth-place showing in league, although games with familiar rivals Estancia and Sage Hill should be interesting. Taylor also said Orange Coast League newcomer Saddleback has a strong team.

ESTANCIA

Coach: John Carpenter (32nd year)

2009 record: 19-9, 2-2 in the Orange Coast League (third)

Returning starters: Charlie Umansky (Sr.), utility; Preston Schow (Sr.), utility; Asher Twardowsky (Sr.), utility; Conner Graham (Sr.), goalie; Matt Thome (Sr.), utility; Brody Henscheid (Jr.), utility; Derek Andrews (Jr.), utility

Key newcomers: Cory Frino (Sr.), utility; Max Hume (So.), utility; Hayden Swift (So.), utility

Key dates: Costa Mesa tournament, Sept. 24-25; Laguna Beach (home), Sept. 29; Estancia tournament, Oct. 8-9; Sage Hill, Oct. 20 at Corona del Mar; Costa Mesa (home), Oct. 27.

Outlook: The Eagles had just four wins in 2008, but they improved exponentially last year and won a playoff game. And, with all seven starters returning, Carpenter believes this is the best team he's had in at least 20 years. Umansky, a Newport-Mesa Dream Team honoree and first-team All-CIF and All-Orange Coast League performer, is a four-year varsity starter. He and Schow are team leaders but Carpenter said any of his field players can score. He calls them all utility players since any are capable of playing at two meters or on the outside, and the Eagles don't run a traditional offense. Beating Laguna Beach may still prove a bit ambitious, but the Eagles, with their returning talent, are thinking of handing the Breakers their first league loss since the league began in 2006.

NEWPORT HARBOR

Coach: Jason Lynch (10th year)

2009 record: 26-5, 5-0 in the Sunset League (first)

Returning starters: Chris Whitelegge (Sr.), goalie; Farrel South (Jr.), driver

Key newcomers: Andrew Duhoux (Sr.), utility; Davy Jorth (Sr.), driver; Dan Stevens (So.), center defender; Ryan Fowler (Jr.), driver; Trevor McGhie (Sr.), center; Luke Ronaldson (Sr.), center; Curtis Fink (So.), driver; Andrew Silvers (So.), center; Preston Lee (So.), driver; Hank Lee (Jr.), driver.

Key dates: South Coast Tournament, Sept. 23-25; SoCal Invitational, Oct. 8-9; Los Alamitos (home), Oct. 20; at Corona del Mar, Oct. 23; NorCal Invitational, Oct. 29-30.

Outlook: After graduating 14 seniors, including Sunset League Player of the Year Blake Kelly, Lynch said the expectations are a bit lower this year for the Sailors. He wants his team to be among the top four in Division I. Last year, the Sailors had a goal of going undefeated, which they didn't accomplish but they still made it to the Division I final before losing to El Toro. Lynch does return a pair of talented players in Whitelegge and South, who played with the U.S. men's junior national team in Italy over the summer. Lynch also lost last year's talented freshman Jon Walters, who transferred to Mater Dei. Walters was initially declared ineligible to play for the Monarchs, now in Division I, but the school is appealing. Either way, Lynch said the transfer happened in March and the Sailors have put it behind them. Lynch said he expects his team to hold off Los Alamitos for the league title and be right in the mix in Division I along with El Toro, Loyola and Mater Dei.

SAGE HILL

Coach: Tom Norton (fifth year)

2009 record: 11-8, 3-1 in the Orange Coast League (second)

Returning starters: Eric Hallett (Sr.), center; Kevin Miller (Sr.), utility; Eric Fish (Sr.), defender

Key newcomers: Thomas Lubowe (Sr.), goalie; Matt Dollett-Hemphill (Sr.), driver; Jeremy Dorne (So.), driver; Ryan Sung (Fr.), driver

Key dates: Costa Mesa tournament, Sept. 24-25; Costa Mesa (home, at CdM), Oct. 13; Estancia (home, at CdM), Oct. 20.

Outlook: The Lightning are coming off a big year as they earned their first playoff victory, 11-7 over Schurr of Montebello in the first round of the CIF Southern Section Division III playoffs before falling to eventual champion Murrieta Valley. Norton said he thinks second place in league is again attainable, even as Sage lost its top goal-scorer, Andrew Dorne, and goalie Jake Blitzer from a year ago. Lubowe, a backup goalie last year, starts this year. Dorne's younger brother, Jeremy, should contend for playing time as a sophomore. The Lightning were dealt a blow when Alex Manolakas decided he was sticking to tennis, but this is a fairly veteran group and Norton said they had a good summer.

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