The splashing in the pool at Studio City Harvard-Westlake High offers a tiny hint at what is taking place during water polo practices under its new coach, 28-year-old Jack Grover, who has so much talent to work with that he’ll be employing ice hockey-like line changes every three or four minutes.
“What’s special about this group is we play at such a high level but there’s not one person doing everything,” he said. “We don’t rely on one player, which is pretty unique at the high school level.”
When Brian Flacks left to become head coach at Stanford, Harvard-Westlake hired the top assistant at UCLA, Grover, who is a former Loyola High star. Since he was already recruiting many of the Harvard-Westlake players, he knew what he was inheriting.
“I had seen them play a number of times to the point during the interview process I was sitting up at night and thinking, ‘What if I get this position, how am I going to use this player?’ ” he said.
Now he’ll try to develop a young team that made it to the Southern Section Open Division semifinals last season before losing to Huntington Beach 11-9. The Wolverines are off to a 2-0 start and face defending Open Division champion Newport Harbor on the road Sept. 10.
The Wolverines have eight players on their roster who are members of USA youth or cadet national teams. Their No. 1 goalie, 6-foot-6 Baxter Chelsom, was on the USA youth team that won a championship in Budapest, but he receives constant competition from No. 2 goalie 6-6 James Peace and No. 3 goalie Jaaziah McZeal, who started for the 16U Junior Olympics championship team.
It goes on and on. Ben Oerlemans, a standout junior, plays for the Dutch youth national team. Standout sophomore Otto Stothart is a citizen of Spain and Australia. Senior Jack Burghardt is on the youth national team and sophomore Connor Kim is on the cadet national team. There’s one freshman to watch in Aidan Romain. Taj Draper, once the best player at Encino Crespi, has also joined the team.
Starting center Jeff Koretz is known for creating scoring opportunities for teammates, which is part of Harvard-Westlake‘s success. Getting so many good players to play together is key because the Wolverines have multiple scoring threats.
There are teams around the Southland that will give the Wolverines plenty of trouble. San Juan Capistrano JSerra has picked up one of the best players in Ryder Dodd from Huntington Beach. Defending champion Newport Harbor returns UCLA commit Ben Liechty, a 6-4 senior who will be a four-year starter and is the third brother starring in water polo.
It has been an intriguing time in water polo with many coaching changes both in college and high school.
“This period of time has been crazy,” Grover said. “There have been more coaching positions open in the last five months than I’ve ever seen.”
There are few sports where high school coaches can move immediately to the college ranks, but water polo is one of them. Flacks was coaching national teams before leaving for Stanford. Before arriving at Harvard-Westlake, Grover was told during the interview process the Wolverines train like a college program.
“These kids pick up things really fast and what they may lack in age, they make up with the aptitude being able to understand instruction,” he said.
The players understand how the transition of coaches moving easily from different levels is part of the sport’s history.
“The water polo community is very close knit,” Chelsom said. “A lot of the coaches know each other and a lot of the players know the coaches. When a coach’s talent is recognized, it’s recognized across all levels of water polo.”
Harvard-Westlake players haven’t forgotten their loss in the semifinals.
“It was a pretty painful experience,” Chelsom said. “This full year has been how do we make sure we don’t feel the same.”