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Water Warriors Ahead of Their Aggressive Plan

Coming Off Their Best Season In More Than A Quarter Century, Titans Are Looking for That Elusive Rio Hondo League Title

When San Marino High School head water polo Coach Robert Zirovich says “things are going very well,” it’s probably a good idea to pay heed to his words.

Zirovich has played and coached at all levels of the game, so when he speaks, he does so from a standpoint of experience. The Titans are coming off their best season since the early 90s and the second-year coach has his eyes on the next level. A late-season loss to Temple City is all that kept San Marino from the 2015 Rio Hondo League championship and Zirovich wants to finish the job this fall.

“We are ahead of plan as far as endurance and conditioning are concerned,” said Zirovich. “But we have a ways to go when it comes to game tactics. But that is one of the advantages of starting three weeks before Labor Day. We have some time.”

The Titans scrimmaged Whitter and Sonora High Schools last weekend and the coach saw some progress.

“Defensively, we looked very solid,” said Zirovich. “Offensively, we still have some bats to get out of the belfry. We had some errant passes and hit a lot of goalposts and crossbars. But we are getting there.”

Like many sports, the landscape, or should we say, waterscape, has changed drastically. No longer is water polo a niche sport which is picked up in the late summer and put down by Thanksgiving.

“The vast majority of our guys have become real dedicated,” said Zirovich. “Almost the entire varsity plays year round. We used to have 1-3 club players, now we have our own club. The San Marino Community Athletics Association has made a big difference as far as water polo is concerned. Last year was the best season in 25 years.”

Hard to argue that. In 2015, the Titans defeated South Pasadena twice “for the first time in a gajillion years,” according to the coach. San Marino also topped La Cañada once and finished second in league action.

“Traditionally, La Cañada wins the league eight of 10 years and South Pasadena wins the other two,” said Zirovich. “So we were happy with our finish but not at all content. We still have a lot of work to do. We are building on the progress we made last year and I am more excited than I was last year at this time. We have a special group of kids.”

Ironically, one of the greatest barriers to improvement is pool time. The water polo program has to share the already undersized swimming pool at San Marino High School with the Tsunamis, a youth swim program offered by the Recreation Dept.

“The bottom line is, we only have about four hours and 15 minutes of practice time that we have to split between three teams,” said Zirovich. “Could you imagine becoming the head coach of a basketball program, having only one court and being allowed to practice on it for four hours and 15 minutes? While we had an incredible year last year, we didn’t even come close to reaching our potential. It’s a great challenge to have.”

Zirovich has another unique approach to the game.

“I want every player on our team to be able to play any position,” said the coach. “Water polo is traditionally a sport where you specialize in one or two positions. I don’t want there to be any pigeonholing. We really have the athletes this year to implement the philosophy that every kid can play anywhere.”

One such example of this theory is senior Alessio Brunochelli, who was named the team’s MVP and also the Rio Hondo League Player of the Year for 2015.

“I have coached well over 2,000 kids and he is easily one of the 10 best athletes I have ever been privileged to work with,” said Zirovich. “I have worked with the Olympic Development Program and other elite organizations and I can tell you Alessio is a special athlete. It’s rare that you have the Rio Hondo League player of the year return as they are typically seniors. He is extremely versatile and can play any position.”

Brunochelli was the Titans leading scorer a year ago but Zirovich is impressed with Alessio’s all-around skills.

“He will play all over the pool for us,” said the coach. “I am excited about his defense. Alessio was one of our best defensive players last year.”

Junior Brian Byrne made huge strides last year and has improved during the offseason.

“I am exceptionally excited to see what Brian does with the counterattack this year,” said Zirovich. “He has amazing game sense and quickness. He had a great season with the track team last spring and for us will be a heck of an offensive weapon.”

Blake Castleman, a junior, brings speed to the equation.

“Not only is Blake incredibly fast, but he has an excellent shot,” Zirovich said. “He can also play very good perimeter defense. We are counting on Blake to provide a lot of different skills.”

Junior Salman Elgabalawy is another key piece to the puzzle.

“Salman is one of our hardest workers and one of the most improved athletes from last year to this year,” Zirovich said. “He is a great defensive player who has just started to develop the confidence at the elite level. He is also developing his shooting accuracy. The quality of goals needed at the varsity level is higher and you have to work to get the ball into the net. Salman has the dedication to get this done.”

Dillon Goldsmith a junior, is another example of that multi-threat player.

“Dillon was one of our two center-backs last year,” said Zirovich. “He defended the biggest player on the other team and will have that same task this year. Dillon has a great work ethic and he has turned himself into a superb outside shooter and a great driver.”

Junior Ethan Lai gets Zirovich’s nod for moxie.

“Ethan is the smallest person on the varsity but he is very tough,” said the coach. “He steals balls that shouldn’t be stolen. As a freshman Ethan was the junior varsity captain and the only sophomore on the varsity team last year. His knowledge of the game is unparalleled. He is very smart and is always thinking about the third and fourth move on the chessboard.”

Alex Lee is one of the few seniors left on the squad.

“Alex is a driver, but also one of our secondary center-forwards,” Zirovich said. “He is super fast, great on the counter and a wonderful defensive player.”

The appropriately named Water Lam, a senior, has shown steady improvement over the years.

“Water is a special kid,” said Zirovich. “He’s the kid every coach wishes was part of his own family. Water is super-dedicated, easy to coach and a fast learner. He’s one of the fastest guys on the team and has really developed his game time endurance. He is a great motivator for the team and is one of the athletes who understands the game well.”

Andres Mercado a senior goalkeeper, might get playing time outside the pipes.

“This year, we have a full squad of very dedicated kids and Andres is one of the hardest workers we have,” Zirovich said. “Andres has just exploded as far as his development is concerned. His short-range shotblocking is tremendous. His counter passes are also accurate and a great weapon for our offense.”

Charleston Wong is the only sophomore who made the varsity team this year.

“Charleston is an exceptional natural athlete plays twice as big as he is,” the coach gushed. “He is also an exceptionally fast learner. Charleston is the most improved athlete on the team. He can do it all. I could start him at any position. Charleston is exceptionally strong for his age. This summer, he would score on guys who outweighed him by 20-50 pounds.”

Junior Billy Wu also boasts that all-around attitude.

“Billy is an example of the guy who can play anywhere,” Zirovich said. “He will primarily be a driver for us, but it all starts with his defense. I am excited to see what Billy brings to the table as a varsity player this year.’

Junior Jacob Yee brings strong leadership skills to the team.

“Jacob was the captain of last year’s junior varsity squad and although he does not have varsity experience, he brings a lot of leadership,” Zirovich said. “He leads by example. Kids that age don’t want to listen to many people but they listen to Jacob. He works so hard and has developed into a very good player and he has the confidence of the entire team. Jacob also has a spectacular shot. When we were playing some of the best teams around, Jacob figured out a way to score goals. Everybody loves him, except of course, our opponents.”

Sophomore Aaron Wilson is looking to lock up the starting goalkeeper spot.

“Aaron was one our starters in goal last year,” Zirovich explained. “He is our returning starter and an absolutely phenomenal goalie. Aaron is ice on perimeter shots and can also block the short range shot. One place I am really excited to see him coming along is his counter-attack passing. We are a fast team and we need these good counterattack passes to take advantage of that.”

The Titans hope to take advantage of every strength and the weakness of every opponent. Rio Hondo League play doesn’t begin until early October, but when the whistle finally blows it will be a grueling gauntlet.

“It’s pretty much the same as usual,” said Zirovich. “La Cañada, South Pasadena and Temple City will provide the most competition. This year, Temple City gets some very special freshmen. They are getting six or seven players from as very good club team. La Cañada is always very strong. Last year was the first year they didn’t qualify for the CIF playoffs in – literally – nobody knows how long.”

The Titans have moved to Division 4 with Temple City while South Pasadena and La Cañada take up residence in Division 5.

“I have no idea where we stand this year,” Zirovich said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we came out as a top 5 team and I wouldn’t be surprised if we were unranked. I have been coaching for 20 years and I don’t really have a good lay of the land this year. It’s going to be very interesting.”

San Marino will get a better idea where they stand when they play in the San Diego Open in October.

“It’s one of the elite tournaments in the country,” Zirovich said. “You will have state champions from Oregon, Florida. It’s going to be really exciting. We will learn a lot about ourselves at that tournament.”


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