Zepfel strengthens Sea Kings

Corona del Mar High boys' water polo coach Barry O'Dea said senior Ben Zepfel can be laid back sometimes.

Zepfel is more of the lead-by-example type. He's the guy who shows up and plays within the flow of the offense, then you look at the stat sheet and somehow the two-meter man has already scored five goals.

Outside of the water, O'Dea said Zepfel has learned to speak up more.

"When he does talk, people listen," O'Dea said.

And when he stares down the goalie, people notice.

It happened over the summer as the Sea Kings played in Hungary. This particular game was supposed to be a friendly scrimmage, but the Hungarian goalie was anything but friendly.

"He was being insane," Zepfel said. "He was yelling at us in Hungarian, all in our faces. We were all getting pretty annoyed."

Zepfel made it stop, scoring after being fouled outside five meters. He scored "nut" bar-down, whistling the ball just over the goalie's head and between his arms.

Getting scored on in that fashion is embarrassing for a goalie. Zepfel stared down and shut up that goalie, who sat out for the rest of the game.

In O'Dea's eyes, a leader was born.

"I think that's the point where he took the reins for this team," O'Dea said.

Now the top-seeded Sea Kings hope to keep the reins in CIF Southern Section Division II. The defending champs play No. 3-seeded Long Beach Wilson in the title match, at 2 p.m. Saturday at Irvine's Woollett Aquatics Center.

Zepfel leads CdM with 79 goals scored. He came off the bench for the Sea Kings last year but made his time count. His goal with less than three minutes left was the deciding one in CdM's 11-10 victory over Murrieta Valley in last year's Division II title match.

The Hungary trip was also beneficial to Zepfel. O'Dea said his center got beat up for nine straight days, and it wasn't too far from the truth.

"They play a completely different style," Zepfel said. "In two meters, basically there's no rules. Pretty much anything goes. I spent half the time underwater. It was rough."

At the high school level in California, defenders can't get away with that. Zepfel draws plenty of exclusions. He's versatile for the Sea Kings, and O'Dea also appreciates the sometimes-overlooked points of his game.

"He doesn't have any 'give up' in him," O'Dea said. "He gets back on [opposing teams'] counterattacks, and that says a lot. It makes everybody else want to work hard, too."

Zepfel thanked his coaches. One of the obvious ones who has helped him is CdM assistant Ryan Bailey, the former UC Irvine standout center and a three-time Olympian.

Zepfel also uses his smarts, which are in no short supply. Zepfel is believed to be tops in the CdM senior class with a grade-point average upward of 4.6. He said his current course load includes Advanced Placement classes in Government and Economics, Physics, English and Art History. Soon he will be starting an online multivariable calculus class through Stanford.

Zepfel is also a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist, based on his performance on the PSAT. There are just 16,000 semifinalists across the country; the finalists will be announced in February.

In water polo, he is carrying on a strong family legacy at CdM. Ben's the youngest of three siblings, all of whom have played water polo for the Sea Kings. The oldest, Evan, is now a senior at Harvard and is playing in the Collegiate Water Polo Assn. Eastern Championships this weekend in Massachusetts. Ben's older sister, Adina, now plays polo at George Washington University.

Ben Zepfel also plans to play in college. First, there is the little matter of repeating as CIF champion.

"We definitely expect a battle," he said of playing Wilson for the third time this year. Both of the previous games went into overtime before the Sea Kings prevailed.

If the game is close, expect a big play from Ben Zepfel.

If you're lucky, you might even get a stare.

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Ben Zepfel

Born: Aug. 16, 1994

Hometown: Newport Beach

Height: 6-foot-1

Weight: 195 pounds

Favorite food: Mashed potatoes

Favorite movie: "Anchorman"

Favorite athletic moment: Winning CIF last year.

Week in review: Zepfel scored a combined nine goals to lead CdM to wins over Great Oak and Riverside Poly in the CIF Southern Section Division II playoffs.

matthew.szabo@latimes.com

Twitter: @mjszabo

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