IRVINE — It's still early in the season, and the Corona del Mar High boys' water polo team knows it will continue improving throughout October and into the CIF Southern Section Division II playoffs.
The Sea Kings don't want their individual games to require such ascension. They want to start out at a high level and go from there.
It again wasn't the case Thursday, in the Pacific Coast League opener at Northwood. But CdM picked it up in the second quarter and went on to beat the Timberwolves, 11-7, in a battle of two of the top four teams in Division II.
Slow starts hurt the Sea Kings, the top-ranked defending CIF champion, in losses to Huntington Beach and El Toro in last weekend's South Coast Tournament. They also had to rally from a four-goal deficit to top another Division II power, Long Beach Wilson, in a nonleague game Sept. 20.
"We'll be there at the end," CdM Coach Barry O'Dea said. "We're doing well. Only one player on this team got legit playing time on the varsity team last year, and that was Ben [Zepfel]. Ari [Marks] got a little bit in the [CIF] finals, and that's about it. So the rest of these guys are figuring out how to play these big-time, pressure games. You know, it's coming around. I think they're nervous a little bit, but that will start to diminish with time."
O'Dea's teams have never lost a league game in his six-plus years at CdM. Rarely have they been at close at the start as Tuesday's game, when Northwood took an early lead on R.J. Simmons' counterattack goal 26 seconds in. Sea Kings senior Wes Sherburne scored on the power play midway through the quarter, but the score was still just 1-1 after the first.
Corona del Mar (6-2) appeared tentative and Northwood (6-6), ranked No. 4 in Division II, had reason to be excited.
"Our big problem is we're coming out soft," said Zepfel, the senior center who scored a team-high three goals. "I think the main part of that is we're not finishing our opportunities early. We missed so many open shots in that first quarter. Not only did we not get any points on the board, but it leads to them having counterattacks, it leads to them going up. It leads to them building their confidence, which is something that can really hurt us. One of our main goals is really to sort of destroy their confidence in the beginning, then basically the game's over after the first quarter. But we came out pretty soft in that game."
Simmons again scored on a counter early in the second before the Sea Kings buckled down. Marks' strong drive earned a penalty shot, which junior Colby Watson converted to tie the score again. After Northwood freshman Kian Falah scored on a backhander from set to again give the T'Wolves the lead, CdM ended the half on a 4-0 run.
The Sea Kings' Jack Harryman scored on a power play, then Zepfel got hot. He scored three times from set in the final 3:16, giving the Sea Kings a 6-3 halftime lead. Northwood, which was led by Simmons' three goals, never got closer than two goals in the second half.
"We just didn't make the adjustments soon enough," said Northwood Coach Ed Carrera, also the men's water polo coach at Vanguard. "We were in the game, and I think we were going off adrenaline and not really being as cerebral as we normally are. I think we just let it get away from us a little bit … my two seniors [Tyler Abravanel and Bryce Wong] both got two ejections in the first quarter. That's tough."
CdM played aggressive but smart defense, getting 16 steals while being excluded just five times. Reid Chase led CdM with four steals, and fellow junior Kyle Trush had three.
"We were just trying to play good in-the-water drive defense," Chase said. "They drove a lot. Our coaches kept on telling us, 'Stay in the water! Stay in the water!' "
Marks and junior lefty Jake Wyatt (two steals) each scored twice for CdM. Senior goalie A.J. Santa Maria made six saves.
Senior Charlie Howarth did not play for the Sea Kings; O'Dea said Howarth has been battling sickness.
Another slow start might be enough to make everyone sick. The Sea Kings play host to Irvine on Tuesday and at Woodbridge on Thursday, before beginning the S&R Sport Cup on Oct. 7.
"We've got to get better at starting out games," O'Dea said. "Until they do, they're making their lives very hard. We have teams that are getting fired up to play us, because we're No. 1 in the division. We've got to start figuring out a way to get ourselves fired up, to play back also. Once we got it figured out [Thursday], we got on a 5-2 run in the second quarter."