With the San Diego Section’s decision to expand to three playoff divisions for both boys and girls water polo, there is reason to rejoice, particularly in the South Bay where the road to the playoffs has generally followed one course: win your league and you’re in.
But no more. The expansion to three divisions, with 12 teams in each division, now allows for multiple teams from the Metro Conference to qualify for post-season play as at-large entries.
Such a scenario would have helped greatly last season when the South Bay League’s boys championship ended in a three-way tie and two teams shared the SBL’s girls title. Under the existing tie-breaker rule, only one team in each case was guaranteed automatic entry into the playoffs. The remaining teams, though league champions in their own right, had to fend for themselves.
With just two playoff divisions, those teams didn’t find the water too friendly.
The revised format allows for four more teams to qualify for post-season play. It’s not a lot, but in the case of teams hovering near the proverbial “playoff bubble,” it definitely offers them a second chance at a second season.
“I see us as being the eighth or ninth seed in Division II,” Hilltop coach John Salts said matter-of-factly.
Hilltop, along with Bonita Vista, will now compete for a berth in the Division II playoffs as opposed to fighting for a spot in a highly competitive Division I field dominated by top-notch North County programs.
The Lancers are not taking their new found opportunity for granted, either. Hilltop’s practices have definitely been turned up a notch to match the team’s playoff expectations.
“The kids have got to use every second of practice to push themselves,” Salts said. “Being mentally and physically prepared starts in practice.”
The Lancers were one of last year’s SBL tri-champions who watched the playoffs from the pool deck. Mater Dei and Mar Vista tied Hilltop for the loop lead but the coin-flip — the Metro’s insidious tie-breaker — went to Mar Vista.
The Lancers 2010 varsity cast is led by the sibling combo of Juan and Luis Ontiveros, Tanner Franklin and Stuart Sokil, Jorge Lizarraga and another set of brothers: Rodrigo and Leo Perez.
Juan Ontiveros is a senior two-meter guard while Luis Ontiveros is a junior two-meter set.
Tanner and Sokil, both juniors, are wings. Lizarraga is a senior goalie while Rodrigo Perez is a junior driver and Leo Perez is a senior driver.
“We could have two sets of brothers starting for us,” Salts said.
Also being counted on are senior diver Ryan Wertz, senior holeman Ryan Kennedy and goalie Kevin Moran.
What’s building in Hilltop’s favor is that Salts feels he has 10 strong players to fill seven spots in the water.
“We’re going to be good off the bench,” the Lancer coach said.
Salts is stressing the mental aspect of competition this year, in particular.
“We need a few years of consistency behind us,” the HHS coach said. “It doesn’t seem to matter whether Mar Vista (the Lancers’ chief league rival) has a good year or a rebuilding year — either we always seem to find a way to lose to them or they find a way to beat us. We have some talent but we still need to get that mental game down.”
Making the playoffs is one thing; excelling in post-season play is another.
“Division II is going to be a tough one,” Salts said. “Everyone is thinking that Division I is where all the top teams are but I think Division II can be tough with some of the North County teams that will be there.”
Besides Bonita Vista and Hilltop, the 2010 Division II breakdown of teams also includes Scripps Ranch, Oceanside, Morse, Westview, Orange Glen, El Cajon Valley, Helix, Valhalla, Mt. Carmel, Steele Canyon, Hoover, Point Loma, West Hills, San Marcos, Serra, Monte Vista and Ramona.
Of those 19 teams, seven — Scripps Ranch, Westview, Valhalla, Mt. Carmel, Point Loma, Serra and Ramona— qualified for last year’s playoffs in either Division I or Division II. Should those same seven teams again qualify, it would reason that the remaining 12 teams in the division are fighting for the last five berths.
So, it’s definitely not a shoo-in.
Hilltop will have some leverage with non-league games scheduled this season against Bonita Vista and Oceanside but the rest of the Lancers’ schedule is not Division II friendly.
Salts has an explanation for that. “When they first announced the divisions, we were still in Division I, so I scheduled a bunch of Division I opponents thinking we would need common games to help determine the seeding,” he said.
Hilltop’s revised 2010 schedule still includes two Division I teams: Escondido and Eastlake. It also does not include any San Diego regional tournaments. The Lancers will play in two varsity tournaments this season, but both are out-of-town events. Hilltop will participate in a tournament in Irvine and another in Morgan Hill, the South Valley Polo Fest, in Northern California.
The Lancers’ South Bay League schedule also does not favor their Division II playoff quest. Hilltop’s league opponents — Castle Park, Mater Dei, Mar Vista, Olympian and Southwest — are all classified as Division III schools this season.
The Lancers do scrimmage two Division II foes: San Marcos on Tuesday, Aug. 31, and West Hills on Thursday, Sept. 2. Even though neither game counts in the standings, a good showing in both is a must for valuable prestige points when it comes down to the post-season seeding meeting.
“Our schedule is what it is but there are no excuses this year,” Salts said.
The expansion of the CIF playoffs might also have brought about an unexpected benefit: a forced upgrade in the level of play in the South Bay.
Otay Ranch Mustangs
Otay Ranch coach Mike Pilgrim said the Mustangs’ goal for the 20120 season is to improve in Division I rankings after the San Diego Section’s recent realignment into three playoff divisions.
"This definitely puts us in the running for a spot in CIF play this year," Pilgrim said. "The boys have put a lot of off-season work in and definitely deserve it. Our sights are set to prove that good things can come from the South Bay and to try to give some North County schools a run for their money."
Top returners include Michael Kowalski, fresh from top two finishes in both the 50 freestyle and 100 butterfly events at last spring’s San Diego Section Division I swimming finals, and goalie Zak Hamner, who recorded more than 100 blocks last season.
The team’s impact newcomers include Mario Montes and Carlo Fiorillo, who returning for his senior year after not being able to play his junior year due to medical reasons.
The Mustangs will be out to explore new horizons in more ways than one. Otay Ranch, along with Hilltop and La Jolla Country Day, are all participating in a tournament in Morgan Hill over the fall intercession break. All three teams are traveling together to the Northern California playing site.