There was a time when Jim Sprague, Sunny Hills High School water polo coach, wasn't associated with one of the Southern Section's best teams.
In 1951-52, Sprague was an All-Coast League goalie at Compton High. But in those two years, the Tarbabes managed only three victories, losing regularly to powerful Downey and El Segundo.
"I really enjoyed the sport, so (losing) didn't seem that bad at the time," Sprague said, and added jokingly: "Some people aren't smart enough to know better, I guess."
Today, Sprague knows better. Sunny Hills, the defending 4-A champion, is the top-seeded team going into the Southern Section 4-A playoffs. The Lancers (24-2) will play host to Canyon (17-10) in a first-round match Friday at 3:15 p.m.
Since being hired in 1968 as an assistant to Hank Vellekamp, Sprague has helped guide the Lancers to the Southern Section finals 12 times, and to the championship four times.
Last month, Sunny Hills defeated Fullerton, 22-3, to win its 100th consecutive Freeway League victory.
Sprague points to several reasons for the Lancers' successful tradition: quality of coaching, continually facing top competition, and lasting parental and community support.
Vellekamp, who left Sunny Hills in 1974 to coach swimming and assist with water polo at UC Irvine until 1980, was rehired this year as an assistant to Sprague. He coached swimming at Rancho Santiago College from 1982-87.
"We're co-coaches, really," Sprague said. "It's a great advantage with Hank here. If one of us takes a vacation, there's little drop-off in (coaching) quality."
Together, Sprague and Vellekamp have more than 50 years of coaching experience. Both work with youth programs in U.S. Water Polo, the sport's governing body. However, many point to Sprague as the key to Sunny Hills' current success.
"Sprague is a very good coach," said Ted Newland, 22-year UC Irvine water polo coach. "He puts in a lot of effort into it. He's very dedicated, not a flake like some."
One of the things Sprague believes in is having his players play with the best as often as possible.
"Getting good competition is so important," Sprague said. "Some teams hide from the best teams. We played CdM four times and Newport twice this year so far.
"I play all my freshmen at least once (in the playoffs), too. I want them to know how it feels to play in front of 4,000 people so they'll be prepared the next year."
Sprague also videotapes each game against Newport Harbor and Corona del Mar, and gives copies to his players to watch at home.
Usually, Sprague said, the parents watch, too. Something Sprague says is an inherent reason for the Lancers' success.
"Our parents are extremely supportive here," Sprague said. "Tireless is the word for it. That's what makes our program--and probably Newport's and Corona's as well--so different. It's the type of parent.
"Maybe in other areas it's big to go to football games. Here, we have that, but also the type (of parent) who'll drive for four hours to watch an all-day tournament."
The team has its own booster club supported by more than 75 parents, who take turns providing all the team transportation and contribute funds for uniforms and equipment.
Last month, when the players met to clean the Sunny Hills stadium the morning after a Friday night football game, a task Sprague says he has them do for "humility purposes," one boy did not show.
His parents came in his place, allowing their son to sleep in.
"They got down there and scooped up trash and cigarette butts just like everyone else," Sprague said. "That's typical here. The whole community wants to see us succeed, and it makes a tremendous difference."