Losing three straight section titles has given Alhambra an edginess and a hyper-focus to get back
Dusk had turned to evening and a light breeze was turning stiff as a chill set in on the Campolindo High campus and its Soda Aquatic Center. The mood coming out of the visiting Alhambra boys water polo team’s postgame huddle was just as frigid. The talking points from coaches Mike Agostino and Ben Baldwin were brief following the 14-7 loss, and the ensuing exodus of players was just as abrupt.
This wasn’t a Diablo Foothill Athletic League match the Bulldogs were supposed to win. Campolindo is one of the North Coast Section’s top Division I teams, while Alhambra is a top-tier Division II program.
Which boiled down to this: It was a match that Alhambra could’ve performed better in. And the team knew it.
“To win a game like this, every single one of us have to come out of the game feeling they gave everything and left it all out there,” Bulldogs senior co-captain Michael Bull said. “Personally, I don’t’ think I can say that. And I don’t think a lot of the team can say that.”
Maybe that sounds overly intense for a league match on a Wednesday night in mid-October with playoffs still close to three weeks away.
Maybe you don’t know enough about Alhambra water polo.
Players like Bull and some of the other upperclassmen on the team, especially the seniors, carry scars. Championship game scars. Each of the past three seasons — since the NCS created the second playoff division —Alhambra boys water polo has reached the Division II final only to be handed second-place medals.
So many repeated near-misses can skew a team’s perspective. Every match is a barometer. Every detail gets scrutinized — it could be the detail that makes the difference in another title match.
Bull is probably the most accomplished player on the Bulldogs roster. He’s been part of USA Water Polo’s Olympic Development Program since his freshman year. He started for the varsity as a sophomore in 2011, which put him in the water for two of three championship losses.
“(I think about it) every week or more than that sometimes,” Bull said of the two NCS finals defeats. His first was probably the most gut-wrenching loss of them all as Las Lomas came from eight goals back to win 11-10. Last season was less dramatic as Marin Catholic won 15-8.
“If I’m in practice and we start having a bad practice, I automatically go back to thinking that it could all happen again. (Losing those games) was honestly among the crappiest feelings that I’ve felt.”
Senior Drew Cisterman, the team’s other captain and longtime friend of Bull, also insists that the imprint those championship games have left on the program is always near the surface.
“(Michael and I) talk about it quite a bit,” Cisterman said. “It’s weird how many conversations will somehow get turned into water polo conversations.”
The idea that he would have players who actively dwelled on water polo would’ve been a laughable concept to Agostino when he took over the program as a very young twentysomething in the mid-90s. In those days, much of Agostino’s chief concerns involved making sure his players had basic swimming skills.
“Martinez isn’t a swimming community,” the coach said. “It’s just not. We probably don’t have more than five year-round swimmers in the whole town.
“So most of the kids I was coaching for years were starting the sport their freshman year. For a lot of them, it wasn’t just starting water polo, it was starting swimming. … Not only was I teaching water polo, I was teaching swimming. And, I was even teaching some how to be water safe.”
Baldwin was one of the players on Agostino’s first team. He was a freshman and played for Agostino all four years. That dedication to the program — and Agostino, really — has never wavered.
After graduating from UC Santa Barbara, Baldwin returned to Alhambra in 2006 to officially team-up with his former coach. The two have been sharing coaching duties ever since, and both plan to make 2013 their final season of running the show.
After being on the ground floor of what Agostino referred to as the “Baby Steps” Era, Baldwin’s arrival to the coaching staff helped jumpstart the foundation for the era the Bulldogs are in now.
“We learned together as coaches,” Baldwin said. “And once we started coaching together, it provided Mike the ability to go into more depth on ways to build the program.”
Part of that included creating the Martinez-based Aqua Pigeons Water Polo Club for 5th-8th graders in 2009.
“We wanted to get the interest built up a little bit,” Agostino said. “And that’s why we’re where we are. These seniors started playing in 8th grade and our juniors started playing in 6th grade because of that club option.”
As the culture has changed, so have the expectations. Especially after three straight years of reaching the NCS final.
“We don’t look at ourselves as the little brother anymore,” Agostino said. “We still might be compared to Miramonte and Campolindo … but beating a team like Campo, that’s where the expectations are amongst ourselves. Don’t settle. Keep working. We’re trying to keep up at that level now.”
The 14-7 loss to Campolino on this particular night showed a bit of a gap, but not as big as the score might indicate. Alhambra had 10 6-on-5’s on offense, due to foul ejections, and could only capitalize on one. If they convert just half of them, the score is much closer.
Of the team’s five losses to NCS opponents through Oct. 25, only one came against a Division II opponent. That was a 15-7 loss at Sir Francis Drake on Oct. 11. The Pirates, along with defending-champion Marin Catholic, are a team the Bulldogs may very likely meet again come playoff time.
In the meantime, the Bulldogs relish their DFAL matchups against talented Div. I programs.
“Taking some of these losses at the end of the year is good for us,” Agostino said. “These (higher-level) opponents force us to understand how hard you have to play this game in order to be playoff ready. Some of the other Div. II teams in other leagues don’t have that.”
Those other teams don’t have their pasts nagging at them either. They don’t have the constant reminders of seeing another team celebrate with another banner that was in their grasp.
Much of the group, especially the seniors, understand that this season — despite some talented underclassmen that includes sophomore hole-set Bailey Abbott and junior goalkeeper Harrison Brown — might represent the last good chance at that banner for awhile.
“I think we can get it done,” Bull said. “Each player needs to know where they excel in the pool. Find their role. Know what they can do in the pool and do it well. If everybody puts their mind to it, we can do it.”
“We want to go out with that win,” Cisterman added, “not with the classic Alhambra second-place medal.”
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