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“I hate swimming,” Jack Stafford told me.

That’s weird, because Stafford, 17, spends a good deal of his young life in the pool.

But then he clarifies.

“I hate swimming laps,” he said. “I’d much rather have a ball and a goal than staring at the bottom of the pool.”

Stafford, a senior at Cardinal Newman, swims but is not a swimmer. He’s the leading scorer on the Cardinals water polo team. He’s also the leading scorer in the Marin County Athletic League. And the North Coast Section. And the state. By a long shot.

Leading up to tonight’s matchup up with MCAL-leading Drake High at the Finley Aquatic Center, Stafford had scored 163 goals. The second-best goal scorer in California had tossed in 112. Second best in the MCAL? Fifty-nine goals.

“He’s outstanding,” said first-year Cardinal Newman coach Kevin Jeffers. “He just has incredible control over his positioning, really good understanding of where he needs to be.”

But if you lined up the Cardinals on the pool deck and had opposing teams try to pick out the kid who has netted well over twice the number of goals as the next nearest scorer in league, they’d likely point to someone else, Jeffers said.

“You wouldn’t look at him and say ‘That’s the guy,’ ” he said.

Stafford is not the tallest and not the buffest kid on the team. He’s not even the fastest swimmer.

But you’d be hard-pressed to find a kid who is more effective.

Even when other teams know his name, know his number and understand his stats, they still struggle to stop him.

“They double and triple team him and he still finds a way to score,” Jeffers said.

“I have had referees and coaches come up to me and say, ‘That kid is amazing,’ ” Jeffers said.

Stafford, who grew up playing water polo in Southern California before enrolling at his dad’s alma mater as a freshman, drives one hour four days a week to play water polo for the vaunted Sleepy Hollow Aquatics. His squad took third at the Junior Olympics this summer, and Stafford was named second team All-American.

Stafford’s trajectory is upward. He’s been to the Junior Olympics seven times. This summer’s result was his best yet.

“I think I thrive when it’s in club,” he said.

“I play a lot more smarter compared to high school. The competition is higher, it’s more challenging. I think it does make me thrive.”

Cardinal Newman currently sits in sixth place in the MCAL. Last year, the team missed the playoffs by one place.

With 10 seniors on the team, the goal is loftier this time around: Make playoffs. Win game one.

Stafford is clearly the leader on the squad, but the team has melded into a solid unit after working four years together.

Senior Devin Farber, second on the team in scoring, said an unusual weight still rests with Stafford.

“When none of us can make it, we rely on him,” Farber said.

Farber, a senior who averages a team second-best 1.3 goals per game to Stafford’s 8.6, said Stafford’s outrageous stats don’t affect team chemistry.

“We are still playing as a team,” he said.

Likely the best sport on the team is goalie Brock Bauer.

The senior has to face the most potent scorer in California day in and day out at predawn practices. “It’s an exercise in patience,” he said with a smile. “But it definitely makes you a better player.”

While Stafford’s backhanded goals earned howls of approval from stunned teammates at practice Wednesday morning, so did Bauer’s acrobatic saves against the state’s most prolific scorer.

“It makes you better when you go against kids who don’t have the ability that he does. Few people do,” he said.

Stafford has narrowed his potential schools to a list of four: UC San Diego, UC Davis, University of the Pacific and Santa Clara University. All have expressed interest in his suiting up for the water polo team.

“Jack is on a path to play wherever he wants to,” Jeffers said.

But first things first.

Stafford said he wants to make sure the Cardinals path is straight through to NCS.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield.