In the land of swimming powerhouses, Northwood High is making waves.
Northwood's boys' swimming team upended perennial power Corona del Mar earlier in the week, 106-64. The final score might have been a bit deceiving, because CdM was without five of its top swimmers, away because of obligations to their club teams.
But as they say, a win is a win is a win. And a win over the defending Pacific Coast League champ is big.
"This is a huge confidence builder for the boys," said Northwood coach Alex Nieto, now in his third year leading the program. "I've always told the boys, at some point in time, you're going to step up and embrace the bigger teams like CdM and Uni, go to CIF Relays and swim well, and that's what they're doing right now.
"They're all taking it really well, they're all excited. The atmosphere on the deck is super focused on winning our league this year and placing really high at CIF. So beating CdM the way that we did gave them the confidence that these things are tangible for them."
Nieto said after the contest CdM coach Barry O'Dea acknowledged that even with those five swimmers, Northwood would have been tough to beat.
"He was like, 'You guys were too fast,'" Nieto said.
It's all part of the long-range goals put forth by Nieto, who also is an assistant coach for the Irvine Novaquatics swim club.
"If you would have talked to me a year ago, we would have said, 'We just have strokes. All of our stroke events are what we have,'" Nieto said. "This year we've got strokes and we're picking up some of the sprint freestyles, which is kind of nice, because that's what we've been lacking the last three years and that's what I've been trying to develop."
As important as refining his swimmers' skills in the pool are, Nieto has been trying to get inside their heads. Irvine is a hotbed for talented swimmers, and going up against University and CdM in league, as well as other big swimming programs in Orange County, is a tall order.
So Nieto does a lot of talking.
"This is something I've been talking about for two years now," he said. "This has been mental conditioning. At the end of last year, we tapered really well, and all the boys swam really well at league and CIF. That got them excited.
"My club team [Novaquatics] trains out of Northwood so I see all these boys from the high school team on a daily basis. And for six months, it's been, 'Coach, I can't wait for swim season.' I've never had that before. These boys have dialed in and bought into the idea that they are going to swim fast."
Nieto also has developed a sense of camaraderie and team unity, noting that many of his club swimmers return to the high school to help out the younger and inexperienced kids.
Some of the top swimmers on this year's team include Michael Chang, a junior who swam a 51.30 to win the 100-yard butterfly, the best time of the season in Orange County.
"He was just cruising it," Nieto said. "I think his best time ever is 49-something so we're hoping to taper that down to 48."
Kallen Kao won the 200 free in 49.04, part of a 1-2-3 finish for Northwood, which also swept the 100 breaststroke, led by Andrew Arakaki's 1:01.30. Daryl Wang and Judson Balding, two freshmen, finished 1-2 in the 500 free, and Jason Rodriguez won the 200 individual medley by one-tenth of a second.
"We knew one of our focus meets was CdM, and to go out there and win at all three levels, or with combined score at all three levels, that's huge because that was a team goal.
"The whole mental aspect from day-to-day is just to remind these guys, 'You have a certain goal, continue to work toward it.'"