It'll take maybe 10 minutes by bus — not taxi — for Andy Coffman and his University High boys' water polo team to travel from their school in Irvine to Corona del Mar on Wednesday for their biggest match of the season.
But the road to a potential Pacific Coast League title has been just a bit longer than that ride down Jamboree Road.
Coffman was both an assistant varsity coach and the frosh/soph coach at Corona del Mar before taking over at University, where he is now in his third season as head coach. Going into Saturday's nonleague match against San Clemente, the Trojans were 12-6 overall and 6-1 in league, the only league loss coming to Corona del Mar on Oct. 11.
University is ranked No. 8 in the CIF Southern Section Division II poll, but the Trojans know they'll have their work cut out for them against the No. 1-ranked Sea Kings, who won the schools' first matchup, 14-5.
"I think defense is the key, we have to have a good defensive effort," Coffman said. "They have a lot of firepower and if we try to match that, it's not going to look good for us. If we can just focus on taking away some of their firepower by playing good defense, I think it gives us the best chance in the game."
Alex Bennett has come up big in goal for the Trojans, with 150 saves going into the weekend, including 15 earlier this week in a match against Irvine. But for University to be successful, the Trojans defense needs to swarm the Sea Kings before they have a chance to get good looks at the net.
"The way we zone is going to be the key," Coffman said. "It has to be a total team effort on defense that's going to get the job done.
"Corona del Mar is a team where we can say, 'OK these are their best players and we can match up and take them out of the game.' But the other players they have will step in, they are very deep. So it's going to come down to the way that we zone, communicating on defense, helping each other out, and obviously good play from our goalie."
Offensively, the Trojans have been led this season by Ryan Hudash, who began the weekend with a team-high 53 goals and 23 assists. He has scored at least one goal in every game he's played, including a season-high six against Buena Park in the South Coast Tournament on Sept. 24.
University has also gotten outstanding play from Eric Miller (16 goals, 26 assists), and Erik Whyte (26 goals, 21 assists and nine saves). Coffman has been especially impressed with Griffin Chappell, who is only a freshman but has 42 goals and 15 assists.
"He has been spectacular as far as freshman play goes and what he's contributed to varsity," Coffman said.
Coffman, though, doesn't want to focus too much on Corona del Mar. Following the match against the Sea Kings, University will complete Pacific Coast League play with a match against Northwood on Nov. 1. That match could be pivotal to securing a second-place finish in league, important when the playoff seedings are announced.
"I think we can compete with anyone in Division II," Coffman said. "With where we're ranked and how we've done overall, it should put us in the top eight for Division II and that will be key for seeding and getting a team we can handle. If we can get out of that first round OK, anything can happen."
Coffman has a little experience in the pool himself, his time as a competitive swimmer making him one of the fastest in the pool in water polo. He played at UC Irvine and trained with the national team, and later played a year professionally in Australia's National League.
"It was a good experience," Coffman said of his year in Australia. "You didn't get paid much, they paid for the plane ticket and a place to stay. I didn't really save much, but it was enough for a 23-year-old kid."
Coffman also coaches the SoCal Water Polo Club's 16U team, which placed third in the Junior Olympics last summer despite being ranked just 44th. That team included Ben Zepfel, who has been one of CdM's top players. Coffman also coached both Zepfel and Ari Marks when they were freshmen at CdM.
"When we put together our game plan, I definitely know their players," Coffman said. "CdM has a big advantage when it comes to their bench, but you know what? What it comes down to is I'm really proud of our players."