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Sea King Goalie Wagner Handles the Big Shots

October 05, 1987|MIKE CORNWELL | Times Staff Writer

He was quietly bobbing, low in the water, like an alligator waiting for something unsuspecting to happen by.

And when a Sunny Hills High School opponent finally tried to force a shot into the goal he was guarding, Jim Wagner rejected it and launched it into a counterattack already under way. Chris Oeding scored a goal that allowed Corona del Mar to upset Sunny Hills, 8-7.

The events at Newport Harbor's pool Saturday didn't exactly make Sunny Hills Coach Jim Sprague gawk. Not the blocked shot. Not the score it set up. Not even that his team, rated as the best water polo team in Orange County, wound up all wet in overtime.

"He must walk on water," Sprague had said the week before, when Wagner had 15 saves in the title game of the South Coast Invitational, which Corona del Mar lost to Sunny Hills, 8-7.

A week later, after seeing Wagner block three straight shots, the coach wasn't toning down his remarks at all. Wagner had struck home.

"I feel Wagner's the most dominating force in the game right now, flat out," Sprague said. "He can totally change the way you have to play. You can be a good team that scores from outside and he'll block 95% of those shots. You have to play him close to score. He's so good at blocking shots, it generates opportunities for the counterattack. They have so much confidence he'll block the shot."

Which is what happened. Sprague said the four-yard shot could have been taken against any other goalie but Wagner.

Even John Vargas, the Corona del Mar coach, who stresses team performance over a single player's so much that he doesn't keep individual statistics, concedes, "I think he's the best goalie in the CIF. He knows where the shots will come from."

Maybe the best goalie that almost never was. Wagner had been on swimming teams since he was 6 and had played other sports. When he cut his chin in a surfing accident and had to avoid getting too much water into the cut, he tried water polo.

"I knew some of the older guys and just decided to give it a try," Wagner remembered. "I just started playing goalie so it wouldn't open the cut too much and water wouldn't get into it."

Wagner, 17, a senior, has been the Sea Kings' starting goalie since his sophomore season. During that time, he also has played on the 17-and-under junior national team. His backup, Greg Rhodes, has also qualified for the junior Olympic tournament.

Even though he has allowed only 32 goals in eight matches (15 of those in the two Sunny Hills games), Wagner says he owes his success more to his team than to his good lateral movement and competitiveness.

"Just by their defense, they force other teams to make bad shots, and hopefully, I'll be there," Wagner said.

Vargas agreed: "I think what makes him so good is the six guys in front of him: Chip Blankenhorn, Dave Cesario, Derek Dundas, Brad Jacobsen, Gary Seelhorst and Hagan Grantham. They do a good job of funneling shots toward the center of the cage, and Jim is waiting, ready to block the shot."

True enough, water polo is a game depending on teamwork. And although Corona del Mar has a 7-1 record with a good team, it definitely would be worse off without Wagner playing his role.

Said Sprague: "If you removed the best player from each team, Corona would lose so much more by losing him than any other team would by losing just one player."

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