After years of near-misses, this might be the year the Servite water polo team wins its first Southern Section water polo title.
La Habra finished the Friars' 1997 season in the quarterfinals. Laguna Beach knocked them out in the 1996 semifinals, scoring six consecutive goals to win by one. In Servite reached the semifinals and in 1994 the final before losing.
"I think this is our year, as long as we don't let outside things affect us," senior two-meter man Eric Woolery said.
Heading into Friday's first-round playoff game against visiting Los Amigos, Servite (22-3) is the top-seeded team in Division II and is ranked second in the Orange County water polo coaches' poll.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 13, 1998 Orange County Edition Sports Part D Page 14 Sports Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Water polo--A story Thursday incorrectly said the Servite water polo team had never won a Southern Section title. The Friars won the 2-A championship in 1982.
The lofty rankings, combined with past success, has made the Friars the team to beat this year. "It's a tough issue," Servite Coach Jim Sprague said of being the favorite. "I'm a pessimist, so I'm always telling the kids to beware of this and beware of that, because the expectations are tough."
A preseason referees' meeting also benefited Servite: The officials agreed to allow a more pressing defense, calling fewer fouls.
The changes have played directly to the strength of the Friars, who run a front-press defense. The front press focuses on the opponents' two-meter man, killing the shot clock.
"It makes them panic," junior two-meter man Michael Kim said. "They just can't think right."
Kim is the focal point of Servite's offense. As primary two-meter man, the offense is run through him. Depending on what side he is facing, the Friars put fewer men on that side, enabling players on the other side to run picks and drives, providing Kim with the opportunity to be a playmaker.
Defensively, Woolery is the backbone. Woolery missed two games early in the season, both of which Servite lost. Two of the Friars' losses are to Long Beach Wilson, the top-seeded team in Division I, and the other is to North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake, the second-seeded Division I team.
"He's a terrific player," Sprague said of Woolery. "He does an absolutely great job. We stunk up the pool in his absence."
Last year, Woolery was the goaltender, sacrificing for the benefit of the team. He did an adequate job, but is much more comfortable in his natural role as two-meter defender.
"I like it a lot better out here," Woolery said. "It suits me a lot better."
The biggest difference for Servite this year is the play of goaltender Mark DeGrasse, who is in only his second season of water polo. His quickness and long arms make him the prototype goalie.
"He's our MVP," Woolery said. "He's playing great and means a lot to us."
Sprague, who doesn't like to keep statistics because he doesn't want his players to dwell on them, said DeGrasse is giving up "around five goals per game and no more than six" and the Friars are "scoring between 14 and 15 each game."
DeGrasse, a sophomore, is the youngest starter on this veteran team. "I just go out there and play," he said. "It makes no difference to me who's out there. We're confident."
His confidence is a shared by many teammates. Kim calls the Friars "cocky," but tries to keep them grounded by downplaying every victory.
"I'm usually nervous but the rest of the guys are like, 'We're going to kill these guys,' " Kim said. "I try to let them realize that we're good, but we still need to prove it every game."