First published in the Sept. 2 print issue of the San Marino Tribune.
Even though San Marino High School varsity boys’ water polo coach Robert Zirovich is marking 20 years in the craft, he freely admits he hasn’t the slightest clue what to expect from the Titans as they enter the 2021 season. Pandemics will do that.
This is Zirovich’s eighth year with the Titans but he has the wide-eyed anticipation of a newborn child after what has been, for all intents and purposes, a two-year gap in the sport.
The Titans’ 2019 season was held in its normal September-to-November time slot, but COVID erased the entire 2020 campaign. The CIF offered an abbreviated schedule this past spring, but few schools were able to find enough players to field teams. The Titans found 10 players willing to suit up and played three games during a 10-day season in mid-March. San Marino lost all three, but Zirovich was thrilled even to get that truncated slate played. In fact, he was so pleased that he doesn’t remember who, if anyone, won the Rio Hondo League or even if a championship was awarded.
“I feel a little ignorant not being able to answer that question,” Zirovich said. “I don’t even know if any other teams in the Rio Hondo League played.”
While games were sparse, practices were plenty. Like many coaches, Zirovich conducted a full complement of practice sessions via Zoom that included such varied activities as yoga, ballhandling drills and what is known in the swim sports lexicon as dry land training.
“And I talked,” Zirovich emphasized. “I talked a lot to — and with — the kids. I’m no Oprah Winfrey or Dr. Phil, but I talked. We talked about the challenges of the pandemic and we talked about things like depression. We reviewed game film and discussed strategy. But how can a Zoom session replace the sport of water polo? The answer is you can’t. It’s not the same thing.”
Given such a severe interruption from the regular cycle, Zirovich immediately called the 2021 season “a rebuilding year.”
“Two years ago we had more than 40 kids in the program and fielded three teams,” Zirovich said. “This year there were 13 kids when we showed up in August. We are now up to 24 kids and I am hoping that we can recruit two or three more kids over the next week or so. So while our numbers aren’t as high, I am excited abut what we have.”
The Titans already have their first victory in almost two years, having defeated Glendale’s Hoover High School, 11-10, last week. The junior varsity squad joined in the fun by posting a 9-8 win.
“It was a fun debut,” Zirovich said, the inflection of his voice revealing his enthusiasm. “That’s an awesome way to start the season. I was really happy that we won the varsity game and extremely pleased that were able to field a junior varsity team and to win that game, as well.”
Zirovich said that the Titans desperately need to get game experience to overcome the drought in competition.
“It took a while to get going but that is to be expected when you basically have a 20-month layoff,” Zirovich said.
“Even if we don’t have a large number of kids, we have some really talented kids,” said Zirovich. “So the big question is, where is everyone else at? This is the first year I have ever wondered ‘where is La Cañada at?’ ‘Where is South Pas at?’ I know one thing: our kids are going to improve more than any other team but I have no idea where the teams are going to stack up.”
With the number of players hovering near two dozen, the coach is hoping that the old adage of quality over quantity will pay off. Sebastian Moggio is one of just three seniors on the roster and provides much-needed experience to the squad.
“Sebastian was captain last year and is one of the best athletes on the team,” said Zirovich. “He led us in steals, counterattacks and goals. Sebastian can defend anyone in the league and I expect him to be one of our major offensive threats, as well.”
Junior Marcus Koh can play any position.
“Marcus was injured last year so basically this is his first real experience,” said Zirovich. “I am really, really excited to see how he is going to perform this year. He had a shoulder injury but he is a great, great all-around player and I can put him at any position.”
Senior Jonathan Hernandez is another well-rounded player.
“Jonathan is a super-dedicated athlete,” Zirovich exclaimed. “He is one of our strongest defensive forces and also one of the smartest players on the offensive side of the pool.”
Senior Jacob Brassard will be trying his hand at goalkeeper.
“Jacob looks like he is going to be our starting goalie and it will be his first year on the varsity team,” said the coach. “Jacob is a big, athletic kid who is not afraid to charge the ball before opponents even have a chance to shoot.”
Junior Christian Madrigal Reza is also an experienced polo player.
“Christian brings a great attitude to the team,” Zirovich said. “He started playing club water polo and stayed in excellent shape despite the pandemic. I am really excited to see him play and improve this season.”
Sophomore Daniel Chen was a goalkeeper last year but is transitioning to the left-handed attacker spot.
“Daniel has the potential to be a big-time playmaker as well as a goal scorer,” Zirovich said. “Having a lefthander with skill is a huge bonus in water polo. It opens up a whole different side of the field of play. If you have a good lefthander, they also tend to be assist leaders. It will be a lot of fun to watch him progress over the next three years. Daniel is a hard worker, but he has had to do a lot more swimming once he stopped playing goalie. But he is a special athlete.”
Junior Andrey Tolmachev has also impressed his coach.
“Andrey is one of the smartest players on the team,” Zirovich said. “He is an excellent player and we are hoping to get him going again.”
Sophomore Howard Huang has also made an impression during the early stages of the campaign.
“Howard made his varsity debut in the spring this year,” Zirovich said. “He brings a ton of experience to the team as he has been playing water polo since he was 10. Howard is also a very good defender.”
Sophomore Matthew Jitngamplang is another club player who made his varsity debut against Hoover.
“If Matthew stays healthy, he is going to be a defensive force,” Zirovich said. “He has a lot of experience and also helps us out on the defensive side.”
Two freshmen — Nathan Chan and Jack Li — earned spots on the varsity roster.
“They are both club players with a lot of experience,” said Zirovich. “I am very pleased with their development. Jack can play any position, including center forward and center back. And in spite of being one of our smaller guys, Nathan is also one of our better players.
Both are very dedicated and also incredibly hard workers.”
Those assets might help the team, but Zirovich declined to make a prediction about the outcome of the season.
“It’s totally up in the air,” he said. “We can finish in last place, we can finish in first place or anywhere in between. I have no idea what to expect of other teams but I do know what we have. We are going to play hard and we are going to improve. We expect to challenge for the league title and I am not afraid to step out over the edge and say that.”
Zirovich is quite clear about that.