He was a scoring frenzy, a one-man tour de force who raised the level of those around him, ignited the sporting spirit of a campus long absent of much to get excited about and made literal and figurative waves by lifting a historically struggling program to CIF prominence while leaving his statistical signature upon state chronicle.
A 6-foot, 185-pound muscled phenom with a lighting bolt for a right arm, he took a lightly regarded program and put it on the map.
Along the way of four seasons of scoring parades and CIF triumph, Hoover High senior Hakop Kaplanyan provided record-breaking revelry, clutch histrionics and left a school and an area as a three-time All-Area Boys’ Water Polo Player of the Year, as voted for the third consecutive time by the sports editors and writers of the Glendale News-Press, Burbank Leader, La Cañada Valley Sun and Pasadena Sun.
“We were happy to have him here all four years and he made everybody around him good,” says Jack Van Patten, Hoover’s athletic director. “What he did puts us out there.
“The things he did for Hoover are greatly appreciated.”
As the waters have settled upon Kaplanyan’s days as a Tornadoes water polo player, the story the numbers tell is certainly staggering.
In his senior season, Kaplanyan led Hoover with team-highs of 139 goals, 103 steals and 47 assists and in three playoffs matches — which added up to a program-first CIF semifinal berth — he scored 19 of his team’s 36 goals, including two game-winners.
And during his four seasons with Hoover, his avalanche of scoring tallies added up to 593 career goals, which is second most all-time in both the CIF Southern Section and the state. The number was buoyed by a sophomore season in which Kaplanyan led Hoover to the Division VI quarterfinals and set the Southern Section and state single-season record with 229 goals — a mark that was surpassed this season by Nogales’ Nick Estevez, who tallied 233 in leading his team to a Division VII championship.
“His shot’s pretty amazing,” says teammate David Pogosian.
Along the way, Kaplanyan’s been an All-CIF standout four times, a first-team All-Pacific League pick twice and a two-time league most valuable player.
But perhaps more impactful than his mind-spinning individual accolades are those of what his team has achieved with him most assuredly leading the charge.
In the three-plus years that Kaplanyan has played for Hoover — he actually attends Clark Magnet — the Tornadoes have gone to the postseason all four seasons, compiling a 6-4 record with trips to the quarterfinals in 2009 and the semifinals this season. In that same span of time at Hoover, only four other teams have made it to the playoffs, with the baseball and boys’ basketball, soccer and tennis teams all having made just one appearance each and going 0-1. As for the last time a Tornadoes team in any sport made it to the quarterfinals or semifinals, that would be 2002, when the boys’ tennis squad won a CIF championship.
Thus, to say postseason appearances at Hoover are special would be an understatement, much like saying Kaplanyan’s tenure with the Tornadoes was simply special would be, as well.
Any number of superlatives would probably understate the magnitude of Kaplanyan’s time in the pool for Hoover.
“We [had] people talking about water polo,” Pogosian says.
And the best was saved for his senior year.
“We made history,” Kaplanyan says. “I would say it was one of my best experiences.”
History was made as the Tornadoes, in thrilling fashion, navigated their way to the CIF semifinals for the first time. But, for Kaplanyan, the season also served in establishing him as a bona fide leader, reaffirmed him as a player who wasn’t just talented, but clutch, and showcased him as an all-around talent and, in his eyes, stood as the best in his days at Hoover.
“Yeah, that’s 100% what I think,” he says about this being his best overall season.
Of course, months before the season began, there was doubt that Kaplanyan would even finish his glory days with the Tornadoes. A transfer was in the works for Kaplanyan to attend rival Glendale during the offseason, before the CIF offices disallowed it due to a determination that it was athletically motivated. But it’s a move that Kaplanyan is happy was made.
“Oh, definitely, of course,” he says. “That was my home team. ... Hoover is what I cared about most.”
In addition to the controversy, there was also a coaching change as Glendale High graduate Kevin Witt, a former All-Area Player of the Year as a Nitro, All-American at Loyola Marymount and U.S. national team member, replaced Ara Oganesyan. But, by both player and coach’s account, it was a quick and welcomed transition.
“There was no awkward transition,” Witt says. “I came here and it was, let’s get down to business and put in the work. He had no problem stepping up right away and getting to work.”
Adds Kaplanyan: “Basically, me and him just clicked right away. I think it was just a perfect combination. I’m glad we had another coach this year.”
One major change put into motion by Witt was his emphasis on defense. As Witt tells it, he had heard that Kaplanyan had been coached at times with an emphasis on offense and an indifferent approach to defense. It was the complete opposite with Witt, however, and Kaplanyan rose to the occasion.
“He flourished in that role and it’s evident by the number of steals he had this year,” Witt says. “He can match up defensively with anyone.
“I firmly believe he can be one of the best defensive players in high school when he puts his mind to it.”
Indeed, while his showy offensive numbers have grabbed headlines and garnered the most notice, along the way Kaplanyan has proved himself to be a water polo player in full, capable of carrying out just about any task that the situation calls for.
“He could do, honestly, anything you want him to do,” Pogosian says. “He could play defense, he could shoot, he can post up, he could be a driver, he could even be a goalie if you wanted. He has that talent.”
He also went out of his way to show his leadership, an intangible Witt says he was able to do in a more vocal manner as a senior. Still, Kaplanyan believes, first and foremost, his leadership shined through with what he was willing and looking to do for his team. Hence, when asked what part of his game he takes the most pride in, it’s not his uncanny ability to swim through and maneuver around double- and triple-teams, nor is it his talent for making unbelievable shots at awkward angles from seemingly anywhere in the pool. Instead, he prides himself most on his teammates being able to depend on him when he’s needed the most.
“Basically that my teammates can trust me, that I never quit, I never back down,” he says. “I take the initiative. Basically, you can always count on me.”
And more often than not, Kaplanyan could be counted on when the game was in the balance.
“He’s had a number of these moments,” Witt says. “He’s come through for his team.
“He always relishes having that ball, being in that situation and being the go-to guy.”
It showed from Kaplanyan’s first postseason appearance to his last.
In a 17-9 win over Lompoc Cabrillo in the opening round of the playoffs in 2008, a freshman Kaplanyan led his team with six goals. During a record-setting 2009, Kaplanyan scored nine times — including the Tornadoes’ last three goals — in a 23-21 roller-coaster win in the first round against Pacifica. And in 2010, he scored 15 of his team’s 16 goals in a 16-12 wild-card win over Cathedral City.
“I love it,” Kaplanyan says of crunch time. “That adrenaline rush is just crazy. That’s what water polo’s all about. I love it.”
Kaplanyan may very well have left his most memorable heroics for last, however.
Hoover, which finished second in the Pacific League for the first time in Kaplanyan’s tenure this season, opened up the CIF Southern Section Division V playoffs in November with a venture to Mount San Antonio College to face Walnut. With his team hobbling through a scoring drought of nearly seven minutes and the match tied at 13, Kaplanyan took over with 10 seconds left and from near mid-pool unleashed a buzzer-beater through the block of two defenders that tucked into the corner of the cage and propelled Hoover to a 14-13 victory.
“I think he’s the most comfortable player in that position,” Pogosian said. “He always has that confidence.”
But of all the playoff nailbiters and fourth-quarter dramatics, it was the CIF quarterfinals this season that leave the most lasting impression with the 17-year-old Kaplanyan.
“That would be the one,” he says. “I think it was one of the most remarkable games that we’ve every played as a Hoover water polo team.”
A season for Hoover and a Tornadoes tenure for Kaplanyan looked to have concluded in the quarterfinals against second-seeded Palm Desert. But time was on Hoover’s side.
“I personally never give up ... unless I know that last whistle is blown,” he says. “You need to have that confidence. It’s very important to stay strong and stay confident.”
After Kaplanyan scored on a beautiful skip shot to cut Palm Desert’s lead to 13-12 with just over 30 seconds left, the Tornadoes saw Palm Desert attempt to run out the clock. But as Palm Desert celebrated what it thought was a victory, Witt argued that the clock had been handled incorrectly due to a discrepancy with the shot and game clocks. The referees put just over 30 seconds back on the clock and after an ill-advised shot attempt by a Palm Desert player, Kaplanyan took advantage of a second chance with a last-second shot, burying the equalizer to send the game to overtime.
“I just always think that I’m gonna do whatever it takes to win,” he says. “I just trust in myself.”
Kaplanyan wasn’t done there, as he scored three more times in overtime, including the game-winner, in the Hoover water polo program’s biggest win, as it upset Palm Desert, 16-15.
“That’s the most heart-stopping game I’ve ever had in my seven years of playing water polo,” Pogosian said.
Kaplanyan’s been playing water polo since he was 11 and his days in the pool look nowhere close to concluding. His Hoover days came to an unceremonious end in a 13-6 loss to Pasadena Poly in which he was controversially ejected late in the semifinal’s first quarter due to a head butt. Though the final image of Kaplanyan was one of frustration on the bench as he was unable to help his team’s cause, the lasting impression is one of putting Hoover water polo into the area and Southern Section consciousness.
“He was the one person the team revolved around,” Van Patten says.
Kaplanyan’s future is undecided as to where he will take his talents at the college level.
“I think he’s one of the better talents coming out of high school this year,” Witt says. “I firmly believe he can play wherever he wants if he puts his mind to it.”
But Kaplanyan’s past and his legacy at Hoover, in this area and in California water polo lore are firmly cemented.