A big step was taken was by both the La Cañada High and Flintridge Prep boys' water polo teams last season.
While the expectations are different, both squads will look to keep moving forward in 2012. The Rebels are looking to move up the Prep League standings and for more Division V success after they reached the postseason last year. Just across the street, a CIF Southern Section Division III title is the focus for the Spartans, who reached the semifinals for the first time in five years in 2011 and have a new, experienced and decorated coach in Todd Sprague at the helm.
"I have been brought in here to get us to the CIF championship game and to win it," said Sprague, who has three CIF Southern Section titles to his name already — two with the Rosary High girls' program and one with the Whittier High boys.
Things certainly look promising for the Spartans, who return a number of key players and saw both teams from last year's Division III championship round — Laguna Beach and Damien — move up a division, Sprague said.
Still, Sprague doesn't want his team to get comfortable and think a CIF crown is a forgone conclusion after La Cañada went 22-7, 8-0 in the Rio Hondo League in 2011 under first-year coach Steve Neville.
"I think the reality is we're not in a position where we're just going to stroll this thing and win it," said Sprague, whose team opens the season Wednesday at Ventura High at 3:30 p.m. "We really have some work to do. It's going to depend on how hard the boys want to work."
The original plan was for Sprague to implement his "perimeter-strong system" on offense with a dominating two-meter presence and lethal outside shooters to keep defenses honest, but there was a deviation from that plan once Sprague realized a whole new system could hurt more than it would benefit a La Cañada squad so close to a CIF title.
"They already got the pieces and parts and have everything in place," said Sprague, who will be co-coaching varsity with returning assistant Devon Borisoff this year and has been setting a foundation in the program by teaching his system to the junior varsity and freshman squads. "Instead of coming in and trying to tweak it too much with the short time we have, we're just trying to build upon what they already do. I am working on more fundamentals than Xs and Os and strategy."
While losing Rio Hondo Most Valuable Player Trevor Roszkos and standout goalie Wolfie Paulson hurts, La Cañada still returns nearly everything Sprague could ask for with senior utilities Chase Borisoff and Symeon Stefan, two-meter Bryce Hopkins and two left-handers in Alden Geller and John Louks.
The Spartans also have three players who will see bigger roles this season in two-meter defender Justin Moh, sprinter Peter Loakes and new goalkeeper Jeff Lee.
While defense figures to be La Cañada's strength again this season, Sprague is hoping to see a balance on offense and defense in the postseason.
"I think our success is going to be based on defense, but my concern is our ability to score against the good teams that play good defense and force us to make the adjustment," Sprague said. "We are going to have to be able to play both ends of the pool very well."
Flintridge Prep showed drastic improvement last season under the tutelage of coach Dan Hare, whose team reached the Division V playoffs after finishing fourth in league and appears to have a strong core of young talent in store for another run at a playoff spot in 2012.
The Rebels will return five starters from last season, including junior hole/guard Alex Blaine, junior utility player Ethan Vandeventer, sophomore driver Diego Delgado, junior hole/guard Carlo Sivilotti and senior goalkeeper Brian Khin.
"We took some baby steps last season and made a lot of improvement," Hare said. "We want to try to finish 6-4 or 7-3 in league and maybe finish near the top in league, and then go to the playoffs and go a couple of rounds.
"[League champion] Pasadena Poly is an inspiration for us. They are the water polo program that we someday will look to be. We haven't beaten them in a few years. They will have a significant edge in our league, but we at least want to stay in their rearview mirror."