Benefield: Cardinal Newman boys water polo playing in a bigger pond

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The Cardinal Newman boys water polo team is 6-1 overall, 2-0 in the Vine Valley Athletic League and has scored 97 goals while allowing 34.

It’s a pretty good early-season resume. So when asked what the team is working on, where their soft spots might be, Cardinals coach Matt McDowell had an odd answer.

Swimming.

“Newman is not strong at swimming,” he said.

Come again?

“Most water polo teams, everyone swims in the spring and they play water polo in the fall,” he said. “We have a lot of players who play lacrosse and then play water polo. We are traditionally very slow.”

So what does that mean in the course of a game? This team has to play smarter. If they lose possession and are caught out of position, they will never win the race to the other end of the pool, McDowell said.

“If we get in a swim meet with another team, we are at a huge disadvantage,” he said. “We are not going to take too many risks.”

To that end, he’s almost constantly working on his team’s swimming legs. On Monday, at the second of the team’s two practices, he had players running drills and doing half-pool live-action plays all while wearing 12-pound weight belts. During breaks in the action, swimmers were told to grab a jug.

This meant pulling an empty five-gallon water jug from the pool deck, submerging it in the water until it was full, then lifting it above their heads while swimming in place — until the water drained out. A quick Google search tells me that a five-gallon water jug filled to the brim weighs 41 pounds. It was painful to watch, let alone accomplish.

When senior and team captain Bennett Stafford let slip a curse word while doing his jug, McDowell told him to finish that one and do an additional. Stafford just smiled and pushed jug No. 2 under the water.

When asked later about the prospects of the squad and team goals this season, Stafford talked about focus and always pushing for a little bit more.

“As a captain and a leader, I need to be hard on them because I know what they are capable of,” he said. “When they are slacking off, I need to go up to them and remind them why we are here and what we are working towards and that is ultimately to win NCS.”

And every Cardinal in the pool knows that will be no easy feat this season. Yes, they are the defending champions in the North Coast Section’s Division 2, but as a congratulatory gift, the team was bumped up to Division 1 this year.

It’s a prospect that is both exhilarating and a wee bit scary.

“It’s a little intimidating because I feel like we are a smaller school,” senior Gavin Homer said. “We have a smaller team compared to all the other teams.”

But Homer said the Cardinals are seasoned. They lost only a couple of players from the team that went 24-3 overall and 11-1 in the VVAL for a share of the league title with Vintage and won the school’s first NCS title in water polo. That earned them a ticket to the NorCal tournament, only to have competition canceled because of poor air quality from last fall’s deadly wildfires.

And the Cardinals return plenty of offensive firepower. Stafford has 35 goals in seven games and senior Joao Mesquita has 30.

Mesquita’s contribution has been huge, according to McDowell.

“Almost everything I did last year had to have Bennett involved,” he said. “Joao had six goals against Vintage. He turned that game.”

If a team zeros in on Stafford, the Cardinals have more offensive options this year, including Homer, who has 14 goals on the season.

So they came into the season brimming with confidence. Perhaps a little too much confidence.

To hear it from the squad, that section title buoyed the confidence of the small program, but it also might have made them feel a little too self-assured. Hence their season-opening 13-12 loss to Turlock in the Sierra Shootout tournament.

“It was a little bit of humble pie,” Stafford said. “We were really cocky after winning NCS last year.”

McDowell made no bones about it.

“They were confident, I was confident,” he said of his players. He, too, used the phrase “humble pie.”

But, in the end, the loss may end up serving the Cardinals, McDowell said.

“You never want to lose, but it was kind of a good loss in a way,” he said.

The Cardinals had a 5-0 lead before, as McDowell puts it, they took their foot off the gas. They lost the game, but they might have learned a larger lesson.

“It refocused everyone,” he said.

“Opening the season with a loss just kind of opened our eyes to we have to work harder and that we want more, we want to win,” Homer said. “Having a loss at first is kind of a good thing because it shows us that we don’t want any other losses.”

If the Cardinals took something away from that defeat, they also took something away from their 15-5 win over Vintage High on Sept. 10. It was Vintage, readers may recall, who beat the Cardinals in the second half of last year’s league season to grab a share of the VVAL title. That cut went even deeper when it was Vintage that was awarded the automatic NCS tournament berth based on goal differential.

So when the Cardinals went up on Vintage 8-0 at the half two weeks ago, all McDowell had to do was remind his guys of last year’s co-championship as well as their early-season loss to Turlock, when they had a commanding lead and let it get away.

“Don’t let that happen again” was the message.

“Having that win with such an upper hand made us feel good about ourselves because that was one team we wanted to get back at,” Homer said.

If the Turlock game shook them, the Vintage game solidified them, McDowell said.

“We handled them,” he said. “That was really important for us. We want to win (league) outright.”

To that end, the Cardinals host Sonoma Valley, who were 2-0 heading into Tuesday night’s road game against Vintage, at 5 p.m. Friday at Finley Aquatic Center in Santa Rosa. Sonoma Valley beat Justin-Siena 25-4 on Sept. 10 and American Canyon 10-5 on Sept. 12.

Beyond league, the Cardinals are not shying away from saying out loud that they want more than a league pennant. But to get through Division 1, they will have to make their way through the likes of defending champ Tamalpais and Redwood, Washington and College Park. Vintage, it should be noted, was the No. 5 seed in Division 1 last season.

McDowell revels in the challenge.

“In D2, it would almost be like we should win it,” he said. “With D1, it’s a challenge now. There are teams that are viewed as better than us that we are excited to play.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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