GLENDALE — Once again, the battle for the Pacific League boys' water polo championship figures to be waged within the close radius that encompasses Glendale and La Crescenta.
Crescenta Valley High, Glendale and Hoover, all of which made it at least as far as the CIF Southern Section Division VI quarterfinals in 2009, occupied the top three spots in league last season. With each returning nearly their entire teams intact, it's a trend that would appear destined to repeat itself this year.
Likely, the order in which they will finish this time around is the only thing that's up in the air, with Burbank, Burroughs, Arcadia and Pasadena fighting to move up.
"We're looking forward to the start [of league]," said Crescenta Valley Coach Jan Sakonju, whose team opens the defense of its league title against Burroughs at home at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday. "From the very beginning, we recognized the potential of the team because of the athleticism of so many of the key members and the goal from Day One has been for us to work together, play hard and to play smart.
"Every game that we've played, we've made improvement. It hasn't been perfect; we've taken one step back and two steps forward, but, definitely, they're playing very well as a team and their defense has been clicking for a while."
The Falcons are currently ranked No. 1 in Division V and have to be considered the favorite once again in league in terms of depth and returning talent from the squad that reached the semifinals last season. Driver Alan Dearman and goalkeeper Rane Colvin are two of the top players in the division.
"For league, the way we see it is our biggest competition is going to be Crescenta Valley, of course," said Glendale Coach Forest Holbrook, whose team also advanced to the semis after finishing runner-up in league last year, and is scheduled to play Muir on Tuesday, which will reportedly not field a team this season. "It's a machine up there and every year they've got great players. From what we've seen of them so far it looks like they didn't slow down that much — they're looking really good."
But it was hardly a walkover for the Falcons last year, as they survived some close matches with Glendale and Hoover and had to go to overtime to beat the Nitros in the league championship tournament, and both Glendale-area squads have worked hard to get better in the offseason and in this year's nonleague period.
"We've been trying to focus on the fundamentals of water polo and just athletics in general, and defense," Hoover Coach Ara Oganesyan said. "We've seen a big improvement in the defense; teams aren't scoring 15-20 goals on us this season."
Oganesyan boasts the strongest individual weapon in the league in Hakop Kaplanyan, a junior utility who set the Southern Section record for goals scored in a single season with 229 last year. He's not likely to break that record again this year though, as Oganesyan has put a priority on team play, even if that necessitates some getting used to.
"The offense we're having a little bit of a tough time with just because it is so different than last year," Oganesyan said. "The initiators and the role players have to figure out what their purposes are on offense. They're having a tough time because the offense requires the initiators to do less and the role players to do more."
Holbrook also took the initiative of shaking up his team a bit, introducing some new starters to the mix and pushing his returners with a different rotation.
"We've only gotten better from last year," said Holbrook, who has two new starters emerging in attacker Martin Chatalyan and driver Vartan Mamikonyan, "Everyone is getting stronger and stronger on our team.
"We feel like we can be a very strong team. If every person on our team plays their best and tries their best, we'll have a successful year this year."
The Nitros have gone 11-5 in nonleague games with appearances in tournaments such as the Villa Park Tournament and the Conqueror Classic, which they won.
Crescenta Valley hasn't taken many days off either leading up to the start of league, competing in the tough Thousand Oaks and South Bay Tournaments and bringing a record of 9-2 into league. Sakonju cited his team's loss to Ventura and a split of two meetings with Rio Mesa as the best preparation his team could have wished for.
"Getting to play Rio Mesa twice was incredibly important," Sakonju said. "They beat us, we needed to make adjustments, we needed to learn from that loss and then we played them again and were able to beat them and I think that's extremely significant for us.
"I've tried to schedule the tough teams [in nonleague] because a loss can teach you more than a win sometimes."
Hoover, which opens against Arcadia on the road Tuesday also competed in the Thousand Oaks Tournament and has gone 3-8 in its own difficult nonleague slate. But Oganesyan is more concerned with what his team has learned than how many games it's won.
"Playing good defense just allows you to control the tempo of the game a little bit more," Oganesyan said. "I hope we'll figure out what we need to do and the team will come together and realize what we expect of them. If that happens, it should be an interesting Pacific League [season]."
Overall, the most exciting matchups in league figure to be the head-to-head meetings between the big three.
Crescenta Valley hosts Hoover on Thursday and travels to Glendale on Oct. 19, while Glendale and Hoover meet in the regular-season finale on Oct. 27. And, of course it's likely there will be more clashes in the league tournament.
"Glendale and Hoover still have the talented players, but it's kind of hard to get a read on where they're at at this point in the season," Sakonju said. "It's kind of an unknown. We know that they have talented players.
"The other teams, it seems a lot of them are rebuilding."
Said Holbrook: "The cool thing about our league is that we've got really good competition. You've got what many think to be the best junior in the country playing for Hoover and that's really good practice for playing against a team like La Serna that really relies on one or two guys.
"Then you've got CV that, for the most part, they've got a real complete team, so it's great practice. The way we look at it, we'll end up playing Crescenta Valley twice and that's great practice for CIF."