The pecking order of the three local boys' water polo teams in the Pacific League may be primed for some reshuffling this season.
Crescenta Valley High, Glendale and Hoover have established themselves as the top three programs in the league over the past several seasons and, with all three being members of CIF Southern Section Division V, the Falcons, Nitros and Tornadoes have also found themselves in the same postseason pool year after year, although no head-to-head matchups have materialized there.
"Our league is always pretty competitive," third-year Glendale Coach Forest Holbrook said. "There's always a lot of competition between Hoover, Crescenta Valley and us."
The Falcons have held the edge over the last three years, winning the league title each time and advancing to the divisional semifinals the last two seasons after winning a CIF championship in Division VI in 2008.
Last year's team was especially dominant, blowing through the league and holding down the top ranking in the division before entering the playoffs as the No. 1 seed, only to fall to eventual runner-up Pasadena Poly one match short of the finals.
Whatever the end result for the Falcons this season, the process, at the very least, figures to be quite different, as only one starter — senior driver/hole/guard Louis Wojciechowski — is back from last year's team.
"I think we're the underdog [in league]," Sakonju said. "I think we have a shot at being in the top three, but if we'll be on the top, that's definitely uncertain and it's something that we're trying to do.
"[Glendale and Hoover] are ahead of us, but that brings excitement to it, as well. …It's easier not having a target on your back and the whole division chasing you."
CIF is in agreement with Sakonju as far as the Nitros are concerned, slotting them one spot above the No. 7 Falcons at No. 6 in the Division V preseason rankings, while Hoover enters as the No. 10-ranked squad.
Glendale, which finished second in league and bowed out in the CIF quarterfinals last year, is looking more and more like the favorite in league now, even after failing to add the 2010 Pacific League Player of the Year Hakop Kaplanyan, who unsuccessfully attempted to transfer from Hoover in the spring.
Holbrook still brings back a strong core of established players led by center/guard David Grigorian and set/defender Shant Tokatyan, both seniors, and junior driver Martik Chatalyan, as well as a promising underclass.
"We're going to have a pretty young team this year," said Holbrook, who is still narrowing down two starting field positions and the goalkeeper role. "We've got more depth than we've had the last two years, so that's pretty exciting. We're looking for our older players to really step up.
"Because we've got such a young team, we've got a number of kids on the team fighting for positions."
Kaplanyan, the CIF single-season record holder for goals scored, will be back for his senior season with the Tornadoes, ensuring that Hoover will remain a player in the chase for the league title and have a chance to go farther in this year's playoffs than last year's first-round exit.
Guiding Kaplanyan and a team that includes David Pogosyan, a senior hole/guard, and goalkeeper Sevada Khodaverdi, will be new Tornadoes Coach Kevin Witt. Witt was a former area standout at Glendale, who went on to star at Loyola Marymount before representing the United States in international competition.
"It's going to be nice to actually start working with him because then I can actually start to implement him into the system that I want to run," Witt said of Kaplanyan. "We also have some good underclassmen. We have some good freshmen and sophomores coming in this year that I see playing a lot of big minutes for us."
Witt, who took over for Ara Oganesyan, said he looks forward to implementing his coaching style and taking the program to the next level.
"I have a specific way in which the game of water polo is supposed to be taught and I really don't accept anything less or any other variation," Witt said. "Whatever system I have running — there are going to be several defenses and several offenses — I expect them run a certain way with certain personnel in specific situations depending on the team we play."
While starting over with a mostly new group, Sakonju, who lost mainstays Alan Dearman, Jack Snyder and Rane Covin in goal, is hardly running up the white flag. He's got high hopes that the talent and potential of first-year starters Manny Martinez, a senior goalkeeper, Antonio Camarillo, a junior hole/set, and Alex Lee, a senior driver, will compensate for their lack of varsity experience.
"It's very similar to the 2008 team in that we have a whole bunch of lefties, good goaltending and we have some swimming speed," Sakonju said. "It's very different than years past. We had all these guys that had important roles on the team and now there's that vacuum there. But in that vacuum, these guys have really been pushing. They're serious about wanting to carry the torch.
"It will be a journey as the months go by as we get ready for playoffs. It's very different than years past when we've been the No. 1 or No. 2 team [in the division] for the past four years."
The vacuum left at the top of the division rankings by Crescenta Valley has been filled, at least at the season's onset, by La Serna, Poly and Bonita, who open ranked as the top three.
Flintridge Prep, in its second season under Coach Dan Hare, looks to improve on its winless record in the Prep League last season behind sophomore standouts Ethan Vandeventer and Alex Blaine.
Senior tri-captains Kellan Rohde, Patrick Hickey and Jack Purvis will all play specialized roles, Hare said.
"We realize we play in a very tough league," said Hare, whose league includes Poly and Chadwick, which won a CIF title in 2009. "We just want to continue to get better."