If there is one aspect (defense) that would be considered key (defense) to the success (defense) of this year's boys' water polo team (defense) at Northwood High school, the answer is clear.
Ask first-year coach Chris Murin, and you hear it over and over again.
That's right, it's defense.
Northwood is off to a good start to the season, winning two of its first three games. Murin has come to Northwood to coach both the boys' and girls' teams after coaching previously at Palos Verdes High, and he immediately went to work to change things around, focusing on defense and the counter attack.
"We want to be a defense-oriented team," said Murin, 38, who guided the Palos Verdes boys to a CIF Southern Section Division 4 title in 2009 and the PV girls to a CIF Division 2 title in 2010. "So we spend a lot of time talking technical defense, going from press to a zone. Those are things we're working on."
But that's not all. Northwood is ranked No. 10 in Orange County and the competition runs deep. To win in this area, a team needs to play well in every aspect of the game.
"Communication is a big factor with this group of kids," Murin said. "We're working on communication, whether that be field players or from the goalie, so the game becomes easier. We're also trying to implement a counter-attack system, and we're working on our five-man defense quite a bit as well, and on our 6-on-5 offense. Those four areas we'll continue to work on."
Murin has the players to do it. Northwood opened the season with an 18-9 win over Aliso Niguel. John Hartshorne and Billy Monjay each scored five goals to lead the offense, and Tim Shaw had six saves in goal.
The Timberwolves also won their last game, 10-4, over Villa Park. Monjay and RJ Simmons each scored four goals and Shaw had nine saves.
In between, Northwood lost to highly-regarded Los Alamitos, 10-5, despite 14 saves by Shaw.
"I like the way we played against Los Alamitos," Murin said. "I thought it was a much closer game than the score indicated. Unfortunately in the third quarter we lost our two-meter hole set (Jason Lee) to a cut just below his left eye.
"We lost a little bit of momentum at that time and we didn't have the offensive second half that I wanted. But I think that we can compete with the No. 4-ranked team in CIF Division 1, so early in the year I'm pretty happy with the results so far."
Monjay leads the team in scoring through three games and is what Murin called the team's "sharpshooter."
Simmons can score, but Murin said what makes him so valuable is his ability to do whatever's needed from game to game.
"He's one of our seniors, he's a team captain and he's pretty versatile," Murin said. "I'd call him a utility player where he can play many positions. He can post up, he can drive from the outside, he can draw fouls and shoot. He's playing pretty well right now."
Hartshorne also is playing well early in the season.
"He's another guy who's one of our leaders in scoring," Murin said. "He provides a great counter attack and he's an excellent driver. He gets inside water very easily."
Lee, despite the cut under his eye, should be ready to return to the water for the Timberwolves' next game, Tuesday at home against Fountain Valley.
"He's doing a good job as our two-meter man but I don't think he's a true two-meter man," Murin said. "He's playing a little bit out of position, but he provides us with a sixth center presence in front of the goal. He's able to draw exclusions, he's able to score and he's able to dish the ball off. He's playing at a high level now as well."
And finally, Shaw has been solid in goal.
"He started last year but I don't think he played as much in the second half," Murin said. "We've been working with him as well. He's got three or four penalty blocks in our first three games."
Following Tuesday's game against Fountain Valley, the Timberwolves will get tested in the tough South Coast Tournament next weekend. Play in the Pacific Coast League begins on Sept. 26 when Northwood plays Woodbridge.
The league championship, though, goes through Corona del Mar, which is ranked No. 3 in Orange County and No. 5 in CIF Division 1. Beating CdM will be difficult, Murin said, but it's not impossible.
"We're going to need to minimize our mistakes," said Murin, whose team plays CdM on Oct. 2 (at Northwood) and Oct. 18 (at CdM). "We're going to need to play extremely sound defense, we're going to need to follow the game plan and the last thing is we're going to need to play four quarters of water polo.
"So far we've had a couple games where we just played three quarters or even two quarters. So in practice we're working on playing a consistent four quarters of high level water polo."