Harvard-Westlake water polo has the talent to challenge Orange County powerhouses
At 6 feet 5, with long arms and big feet, junior Baxter Chelsom of Studio City Harvard-Westlake has found the perfect position to play in water polo.
“It definitely helps because you can cover a lot more of the cage,” he said. “Thankfully, the pool is the great equalizer. I’m not very coordinated on land.”
There’s no need for him to be able to dunk a ball unless it’s celebrating a pool victory. He and senior center Ilias Stothart, who’s from Spain but speaks with an Australian accent because that’s where his parents are from, will lead a young but talented Harvard-Westlake team into what they hope will be a return to normality in high school boys’ water polo.
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Last year, the season was minimal (nine games) because of COVID-19 restrictions. There were no playoffs. The games were devoted to giving seniors the chance to excel. Now it’s back to fierce competitions and big-time tournaments. Harvard-Westlake plans to face all the top Division 1 teams in Southern California during the regular season. Huntington Beach, Santa Ana Mater Dei and Newport Harbor figure to offer top competition, along with Mission League power Loyola.
The three top regular-season tournaments include the South Coast tournament (Sept. 16-18), the Elite 8 (Oct. 7-9) and the North-South Oct. (15-16).
Coach Brian Flacks, in his 11th season as coach, has guided the Wolverines to four Southern Section championships and during the summer, he was beaming because two former Harvard-Westlake greats, Johnny Hooper and Ben Hallock, played for Team USA’s water polo team in the Tokyo Olympics. He welcomes a return to a full high school season.
“To say we’re excited would be an understatement,” Flacks said.
The Wolverines are so young that Stothart will be the only senior in the starting lineup. Four juniors traveled to Hungary to play for the U16 Cadet national team this summer: Chelsom, Daniel Mnatsakanian, Jaxson Tierney and junior Chris Arakelian.
“It was a lot of fun,” Chelsom said. “I got to meet some of the most talented water polo kids who are my age. It was fun getting into the culture of Hungary. Playing against people that don’t speak English was interesting.”
The Wolverines know the powers in Orange County will be tough to topple because of their experience. Mater Dei has 195-pound Logan McCarroll and Huntington Beach has sophomore Ryder Dodd, who had six goals last March in a win over Newport Harbor, when the Oilers became the first Orange County team to beat the Sailors since Mater Dei in 2017.
“There’s definitely some tough competition and really young competition,” Chelsom said. “A lot of teams have kids who are sophomores and juniors that in the future when they are seniors will be real good.”
Everyone seems relieved that the focus will hopefully return to what happens in the pool.
“It’s such a big part of our lives and not having last year was sort of weird,” Stothart said.
The Wolverines have been spending six and seven hours a day this summer in the pool training. They know each other well.
“It’s like our second home,” Stothart said.
Said Chelsom: “We honestly spend more time here than at home during the summer.”
Everyone’s fingers are crossed.
“We’re so grateful to have this time now after all the dark period with nothing to do,” Stothart said. “We’re hoping things can keep going well.”
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