Pete Loporchio, coach of the Falcon Water Polo Club, wasn't worried about results when his team entered the Swim Outlet Junior Olympics seeded 46th out of 48 teams.
Loporchio was just happy when the Falcons, a girls' water polo club made up of players from Crescenta Valley and South Pasadena highs, picked up their first win over Bear River, 7-3, after the team dropped its first two games of the tournament.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think we were going to win eight games in a row," said Loporchio, who also coaches the Crescenta Valley High girls' water polo team.
That's just what Loporchio's squad, which is also coached by Robert Echeverria, the coach of the boys' and girls' water polo teams at South Pasadena, did. The Falcons rode an eight-game winning streak to capture the gold medal in the Gold Division of the Swim Outlet Junior Olympics, held Aug. 4-7 in Orange County.
"It's very hard to combine two teams and have these girls learn different styles," Echeverria said. "[Loporchio and I] both have different systems, but we were both flexible at trying new things. I think that made the girls feel a lot more comfortable with each other in the pool."
Echeverria also coached the South Pasadena Boys' Water Polo Club to gold in the 18U Gold Division. South Pasadena lost to Clovis, 9-5, and Rose Bowl, 13-3, in the first day. Those were the only games the squad lost as it pulled out two wins over Daca, 8-7 and 8-8 (3-1 in penalty shots), and a 13-10 win over Stanford in the championship game of the tournament.
"The first day the guys were just inexperienced and that got to them," Echeverria said. "From that point on, they got the nerves out and played every game like it was their last."
The Falcons notched a 6-4 win over La Jolla in the championship game. The Falcons scored two goals with a 1:30 left in the game and tied the score, 4-4.
"I felt so accomplished [after we won the championship], like all the hard work we dedicated to the tournament had paid off," said Sabrina Hatzer, a member of the team and Crescenta Valley student.
It was a long road to the championship for the Falcons.
"We were the underdogs all the way through the back bracket," Loporchio said. "Everyone we played was a higher seed and that's a pretty remarkable thing. I think the girls started believing in themselves and getting some confidence."
After losing to Commerce, 18-2, and Greenwich Conn, 12-3, to start the tournament, the Falcons were rejuvenated when Shannon Hovanesian and Hatzer rejoined the team after playing with another squad in the tournament. The pair were the Falcons' top goal scorers in the 10-game tournament.
"We came together really strong as a club," Hatzer said. "I feel that as a team we work so well together because a lot of us play together in high school. We don't practice a lot together as a club, but we just know how to read each other and we just have a common goal."
Before getting to the championship game, the Falcons defeated Bear River, 7-3, Legacy, 13-3, Kingfish, 13-3, American River, 5-3, and Diablo, 7-3. The most dramatic win of the tournament came in a 6-3 win over Davis in a shootout. A 7-5 win over South Coast in the semifinals punched the Falcons' ticket to the championship game against La Jolla.
"Sports are a funny thing, we got on kind of a winning streak and the confidence level started to build," Loporchio said.
Both Loporchio and Echeverria expect the experience will pay dividends for their players during the high school season.
"It's going to definitely help them out, based off the level they were playing," Echeverria said. "They were playing elite players."
Echeverria used the tournament for both the boys and girls as a chance to evaluate the players he has coming up through his system.
Loporchio hopes the Junior Olympics experience pays off when the postseason begins for his players. Crescenta Valley reached the CIF Southern Section Division V semifinals in 2010.
"It prepares these girls to be in these pressure situations and not panic," Loporchio said. "They know what it's like to play on a big platform and big stage like they did in that championship game."
No matter what effect the tournament has down the road, Loporchio won't soon forget.
"I have been coaching for 30 years," he said, "and this is one of those special moments in my coaching career."
The Falcons Water Polo Club will take a short break and pick play back up on Sept. 10 to prepare for the high school season. Loporchio is looking for more girls, ages 8-13, to join the program. Those who are interested can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.