You'll have to excuse Jim Sprague if he sometimes feels like a Big Ten football coach taking his team to the Rose Bowl.
It's just that Sprague has taken Sunny Hills High School to the Southern Section 4-A water polo championships 10 times since 1971, winning only three titles, a percentage Michigan Coach Bo Schembechler could relate to.
The Lancers will make their 11th appearance in the final tonight at 8:30 at Long Beach's Belmont Plaza, where they will face No. 1-ranked Corona del Mar.
This year holds a special significance for the amiable Sprague.
His last championship team was 10 years ago and he gets a chance to beat Corona del Mar, the team that spoiled Sunny Hills' chance for a perfect 30-0 record last year with a 7-6 upset victory in the final.
"I'd like to win this one," Sprague said. "I'm real used to finishing second."
Last year's loss was one of Sprague's most disappointing moments, but after 10 championship appearances, he's had his share of good and bad memories.
His 1972 team lost to Downey in the final. But what makes the team different for Sprague was the sight of frustrated players crying after the game.
"They bawled like babies," he said. "I've learned you have to be prepared for the best and worst going into these games."
Sprague had one of his greatest moments in the 1971 championship game against Newport Harbor.
"The score was tied near the end of the game and one of our players did the opposite of what we told him to do. He ended up stealing the ball and we scored a goal off the play to win the game.
"Afterward, people were telling me what a great job of coaching I did on that play."
Although the Lancers haven't fared well in the championships, Sprague said it would be unfair to characterize those teams as failures.
"Last year was a disappointment, but other years we surprised people to be in the finals at all," Sprague said. "We're just darn happy to be in the finals so many times."
Despite the natural motivation of playing against Corona del Mar, Sprague is downplaying the matchup.
"It's not a matter of wanting to get these guys. We only have two players back from last year's team," Sprague said.
Sunny Hills and Corona del Mar have virtually switched roles from last season, as the Sea Kings (29-0) are bidding for a perfect season. The teams met once this year and Corona del Mar won, 9-6.
That game holds little significance to either coach, however, for two reasons. Corona del Mar was without the Sea View League's most valuable player, Eric Vinje. Sunny Hills was playing without Jose and Javier Santiago, members of the Puerto Rican junior national team, who rejoined the Lancers last month.
The Santiago brothers played for Sunny Hills last year, but stayed in Puerto Rico this fall when their father wanted them to remain on the island.
According to Sprague, the Santiago's weren't happy there and returned to California in October.
"It made my weekend," Sprague joked about their return.
It did much more than that for the team.
Before the Santiagos' arrived, the Lancers were 14-6 and given an outside shot at returning to the final. With them, Sunny Hills (23-7 overall) id 9-1 and ranked No. 3 in the 4-A rankings.
"Jose is our Magic Johnson," Sprague said. "He's a great passer who makes the other kids better."
Javier plays the two-meter position, along with the team's leading scorer, Bill Slope. The pair gives the Lancers the best one-two punch at the two-meter position in the Southern Section, according to Sprague.
"Having the Puerto Ricans play, that's what worries me" said John Vargas, Corona del Mar coach.
The Santiagos and Slope are examples of Sprague's propensity for having explosive offensive players. It's a reputation that is well known among water polo coaches.
"We know when we recruit a Sunny Hills player that he has all the tools offensively," said George Harris, USC assistant coach.
Sprague hopes this year's group can score enough goals to defeat Corona del Mar. He says he can live with the championship game losses because he always has the next year and another potential championship to look forward to.
"It's the kids who you have to feel for," he said. "I've won and lost in the finals, but not all of them have gotten that chance."