High Schools: Familiarity breeds greatness

Estancia High boys' water polo coach John Carpenter has seen plenty in his 32 years on the job.

He admits that the years, the teams can start to run together sometimes.

But not this year. Not this team.

Carpenter said the 2010 Eagles are the best team he's had in at least 20 years. That much he can be sure of as his squad returns all seven starters from last year.

"I don't think that's ever happened at Estancia," Carpenter said. "We were pretty good last year, and we had no seniors."

This year, the Eagles are stacked with them. Charlie Umansky and Preston Schow are the top goal-scorers, but don't overlook Matt Thome and Asher Twardowsky, or juniors Derek Andrews or Brody Henscheid. Stats from last year are unavailable, but all players can score, which Carpenter said is another rarity in his years at Estancia.

Senior goalie Conner Graham anchors the defense.

In a Newport-Mesa Unified School District that includes perennial CIF title contenders Newport Harbor and Corona del Mar, the Eagles usually consider it a good season if they can beat their cross-town rival Costa Mesa or another local rival on the rise, Sage Hill. Last year, they beat the Mustangs in league for the first time in seven years.

The Eagles have been up and down. The furthest they've ever made it is the CIF quarterfinals in 1979, Carpenter's first year as coach. That year they lost to a Newport Harbor team that had three All-Americans, including Tom Taylor. Carpenter knew there was no shame in losing to the Tars, who won five section titles in six years from 1975-80 under Bill Barnett.

More recently, the Eagles have had tough times, winning just seven total matches in 2007 and 2008. But last year, as Schow transferred from Mater Dei, he and Umansky built a strong chemistry, and the Eagles finished 19-9 and clawed their way to the Division III playoffs. They even won a wild-card game there, their first playoff win in over a decade.

They have continued to progress, in advance of their season opener at home against Lakeside of Lake Elsinore on Sept. 15. The Eagles went 2-2 at a summer tournament at El Dorado High, but Carpenter said that record was misleading.

"I was impressed overall with the team play," he said. "The whole concept this year is team play. We're working the ball well. The energy is good, the camaraderie is good. This team reminds me of that '79 team, where I had seven strong players."

Carpenter had standouts like Joe Drake, Greg Carrol and Rob Wyatt back then. Now, there's Umansky, who has been starting since his freshman year and was a Newport-Mesa Dream Team and All-CIF Division III second-team selection last year. He said the fact that it's been a long time coming makes it even sweeter.

"I'm not surprised that we're here now," Umansky said. "My freshman and sophomore year we definitely struggled, but I knew we'd definitely improve. Everyone's improved so much, and this is senior year. We're going to make the most of it."

Laguna Beach is in the Eagles' crosshairs; the teams meet Sept. 29 at Estancia. The Breakers have been the class of the Orange Coast League, never losing since the league was formed in 2006. But last year, they led Estancia just 6-4 at halftime before pulling away.

Carpenter said he didn't know who Laguna brought back, but it's definitely not every starter like his Eagles can claim.

"I think we can make a run at them," he said. "No secrets. We're gunning for Laguna Beach."

Now that'd be a win that Carpenter would never forget.

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