Chris Bradley didn't accept the job of Crescenta Valley High water polo coach to make pals with the players. His philosophy rang clear during the first team meeting in July.
Democracy was dead in the water on this team, he said.
The grim lecture surprised the Falcons, who were previously coached by friends--recent Crescenta Valley graduates who had played on earlier teams. Bradley, however, was of a different ilk.
"With the coach before, I'd tell him that I had to go to my aunt's house for dinner and I'd be gone--I'd hit the town," goalie Rudi Liden said. "And with this coach, we're going, 'Oh no. This guy's serious. No more screwing around.' "
Though Bradley's autocracy was unpopular with the players, it got rave reviews from Principal Ken Biermann.
"You can't go out there and be everyone's friend," Biermann said. "You have to get the most out of every kid."
So far, the approach has worked--the Falcons are 6-0. Including tournaments, the team will play about 30 matches this year.
During the past few years, the school's aquatics program sunk like a rock. The Falcons have finished no better than third in the Pacific League since 1984.
However, the program wasn't always waterlogged--Crescenta Valley was in the Southern Section playoffs eight consecutive years, from 1969 through 1977.
Bradley's coaching style isn't the only factor contributing to the Falcons' fast start. The core of the squad is composed of seniors who won the Pacific League junior varsity title as sophomores. Still, team members are thrilled with their success.
"We're a lot better than I thought we'd be," said Scott Gleason, team captain and a All-Pacific League selection last year. "The young players are a lot stronger and a few of the seniors who didn't get a chance to play last year are really coming along."
The Falcons have had four coaches in four years and the players, Bradley says, needed to establish priorities.
"School is number one," he said. "But water polo should be number two."
Practices are long and grueling, and early on some parents criticized the program because of the time commitment Bradley demanded.
But most of the pressure to win, Bradley says, comes from himself, not from the community. A 1988 graduate of Occidental and a three-year starter for the Tigers, Bradley has played water polo since his freshman year of high school.
Yet it didn't take long to discover the difference between playing and coaching.
One difficulty he had was making sure the team didn't mistake his intensity for something else.
"It took them a while to realize why I was raising my voice," he said. "It's not because I'm attacking them personally, but because I want to win."
Bradley's primary goal is a league title.
"If we win league, no matter what else happens, I'd be ecstatic," said Bradley, who hopes to get a teaching credential soon and conduct an introductory economics class at the school next year. "I've seen the talent we have here and the talent that's in the junior varsity. I just feel that if we do a good job, we can't help but win."
Though he is familiar with the caliber of his players, Bradley's expectations weren't always so realistic.
"I've never been on the other side of the whistle and when I was driving down here my first day I dreamed there would be six 6-foot, 2-inch guys and all of them had awesome arms," he said. "And then I had that other side that none of them could swim or throw the ball. It was sort of in the middle and closer to the good side."
And some players come close to Bradley's ideal. Liden, a 6-1 senior, has blocked 70% of the shots taken on goal this season. If a goalie blocks half of the shots taken, he's doing a good job.
In addition to deflecting shots, however, the Falcons have become a formidable scoring force.
In an 8-3 win over Burbank, the offense clicked. The Bulldogs had just scored to cut the Falcon lead to 1 point, then Bradley sent in "Tommy"--a play named after a youngster who used to watch practice from pool side.
"The score was a little tighter than I had hoped and we ran the play to perfection," he said. "And when we scored right away it just broke their back."
And the team's new-found winning ways are filling the bleachers--a situation which has actually created some embarrassment. In one game, Liden was replaced by in goal. He climbed out of the pool and walked nonchalantly toward the bench in front of a group of fans and cheerleaders. One problem: Liden's suit is nearly transparent.
"They were cheering and stuff and I was like 'No way'," Liden said. "One of the guys tossed me a towel but it was too late."
So in the next game, when Bradley again made a switch in goal, Liden took pains to swim to the opposite side of the pool, get out and sprint for the bench.
Antics such as that have livened the atmosphere and drawn the team closer.
"It's refreshing," Bradley said of the job. "It feels good to see the energy and enthusiasm these guys have."