The success of Long Beach water polo is unparalleled, and the latest chapter is being written in an unlikely location: Cabrillo High.

Cabrillo boys’ water polo is currently the highest ranked high school boys’ team in Long Beach at No. 3 in CIF Southern Section Division 7. The Jaguars are still looking for a marquee win against the local elite teams, but Cabrillo aquatics has been put in a position to succeed thanks to timing and teamwork throughout Long Beach.

“These players don’t realize how the stars aligned for them,” Carbrillo coach Lawrence Durand said. “This is Long Beach, and the pedigree is here. It actually came to us naturally because we had the pool.”

Boosted By The Beach

Long Beach has produced more aquatic Olympic athletes than any city in America, and the Shore Aquatics club alone has sent 27 water polo players to the Olympics since 1997. Shore had lived at the Belmont Olympic Pool, but when it was closed in 2014, the new $13.5 million Cabrillo Aquatic Center built in 2013 became the best pool available in the city. That fact attracted attention from Shore Aquatics, and everyone was better for the new relationship.

“Our intentions were to help promote aquatics on that side of town,” Shore water polo director and Olympian Chi Kredell said of scheduling events at Cabrillo. “The kids are great, the coaches are passionate and the facility is incredible. Our Shore kids love playing at Cabrillo.”

Shore also brought Olympians like Adam Wright, Jessica Hardy, Ricardo Azevedo, Ryan Bailey, Lauren Wenger, Maggie Steffens, Jason Lezak and Tony Azevedo to help teams Cabrillo swimmers and water polo players with mini camps. Five-time Olympian Tony Azevedo also brought his international Aquatics Games tournament and festival to Cabrillo in August.

“What we’re looking to do is create inspiration for kids,” Azevedo said. “For all the good it does, sometimes the club atmosphere doesn’t do that, where a kid sits around all day, then competes, then gets right back on their phone.”

“We had one of the greatest guys to ever play water polo on our deck to learn life lessons from,” Durand said. “That’s just so cool. He even got into the pool and scrimmaged us.”

“When he first came in, everyone was hyped up,” senior Noe Villalon said. “Everyone was fan-girling at first, but he opened himself up to us and that was cool.”

Last year, Cabrillo as forced to forfeit its wins halfway though the season because of using an ineligible player. Forfeiting wins for that reason has been a problem that has cost great local teams such as Long Beach Poly football.

“It just blindsided us,” Durand said. “It was like a funeral for awhile, but then Tony Azevedo took the whole team to dinner to cheer us up. Tony has the charm.”

Trust The Process

Durand wasn’t trying to take over the entire Cabrillo aquatics program when he applied to be the full-time pool operator in 2013, but he was running both water polo teams and both swim teams within a year.

“There were not too many takers at first, and I had to do a lot of stuff on the pool operations side,” Durand said. “We barely had water polo balls. I donated some money just to get us up to speed.”

The boys’ program started four years ago, and Durand was lucky enough to inherit a senior captain like Chris Ortiz. He was one of the only players with experience in the pool, and he was hired as an assistant coach after he graduated.

“A lot of these guys came in doing the dog paddle, but thanks to coach and his ways of teaching that he has shown me, these kids have really improved,” Ortiz said. “Our success isn’t surprising to us because of the amount of effort we put in. To an outsider, it would be surprising especially when you see a bunch of Westsiders who haven’t played water polo before.”

Most of the Jaguars felt like outsiders just showing up to tryout for a sport they’d never played before.

“Every year, most people here don’t know how to swim,” senior captain Cory Thompson said. “We train them throughout the summer and work at a higher level to get everyone up to speed. They have to learn how to egg beat and everything. It’s a really good experience, and I really wish more people would come and try out.”

Boys’ soccer is the most popular and successful at Cabrillo, and Thompson’s co-captain Noe Villalon said he needed to explain what water polo was to his freshman classmates.

“Now more people are hearing what we’re doing over the intercom on campus and stuff,” Villalon said. “People come up and ask me how stuff is going now, and that’s pretty cool.”

Thompson and Villalon, who were both born and raised on the westside of Long Beach, started water polo after years of playing other youth sports. Thompson said he was a rambunctious child, and his mom forced him to play at first. Villalon was connived to play by a friend in the middle of the first season.

“I learned about the game by watching Tony Azevedo in the 2012 Olympics,” Villalon said. “And then he actually taught us here. That was really cool.”

Another unexpected star on the team is senior Angel Ortiz. The 2-meter scorer came to Cabrillo as a sophomore after his older brother, assistant coach Chris Ortiz, convinced him to become a Jaguar.

“This was my first real team sport,” Angel said. “I thought it was really weird at first, and had problems with my teammates because I didn’t know how to work with a group of people. It got me really frustrated because I felt constrained with someone on me all of the time. It took awhile, but the coaches and my teammates helped me become more confident in the water.”

A Family Ready For Future

Cabrillo aquatics has more than doubled in size over the last five years, and now Durand has coaches to teach the girls’ teams.

“Coach Durand can be both the mean coach that pushes you to your limits, and he can be the fun coach who just loves you, acts like your role model and is your dad,” Thompson said. “I’m very grateful for him.”

“I tell them not to call me Dad, but I appreciate the honor,” Durand said. “I always try to instill life skills to help them succeed. Having parents teary-eyed, telling me ‘you’ve changed my son’s or daughter’s life’ makes it all worth it.”

The confidence built by Durand had become contagious, and the entire Cabrillo squad has its eyes set on a Div. 7 playoff run next month where they expect to be successful.

“These guys are self starters, so we don’t have to use the oppressed mindset,” Chris Ortiz said. “They know that they’re blessed to have this pool, and they take advantage of it. They’re very thankful to be here and we show that in the way that we practice and play.”

Cabrillo hosts Long Beach Poly in an important Moore League match this afternoon.

Read more about how Carbillo kicked off the Moore League boys’ water polo season last month with the annual showcase featuring all six Long Beach teams on the562.org.

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