The moment itself is devastating.
Coming so close to realizing your dream only to be violently shaken awake just before the glorious finish.
For the second year in a row, Redwood lost in the Valley championship. This year’s defeat also ruined an otherwise perfect season.
The moment was especially painful for senior Matt Bravante, who said he had been dreaming about this season since his freshman year. The 2014 Times-Delta/Advance-Register boys water polo player of the year felt he had let his team down because he shouldered so much responsibility as a team leader.
“I felt mostly guilty to not be able to bring that [Valley championship] to everyone,” Bravante said. “I know how much everybody wanted it.”
Focusing on what Bravante and the Rangers failed to accomplish, however, fails to recognize just how devastating they were to the competition.
Over the past two years Redwood won consecutive undefeated league titles and made consecutive trips to the section finals. The Rangers won 27 consecutive games this season while averaging 17 goals per game and outscoring opponents 476-169.
“Not a lot of people get the chance to do that well at anything in life,” Bravante said. “You don’t recognize it while it’s happening, but when I look back it will be kind of amazing.”
The amazing run began three seasons ago when Bravante helped convince a family friend to take over as the team’s head coach.
Bravante and his family met Major Rogers when they became friends with Josh Ford in 2010.
Ford, then a junior at Redwood, was a dependent of the Tulare County Juvenile Court bouncing around the foster care system. Rogers was Ford’s Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) worker and encouraged him to play water polo.
That’s where Ford met Matt, Mario and Will Bravante, who literally became brothers to him when their family took him in.
Brining it all full circle, Ford began recruiting Rogers to coach the Rangers when the position became open for the 2012 season. The Bravante brothers joined the effort and they soon had their man.
“We were all buddies,” Rogers said. “By that point I had known them a few years. They were excited to have a friend out there coaching.”
The group quickly discovered, however, that friends don’t make great coaches. Their relationship had to change if they wanted to succeed.
“As a coach you can’t have favorites. You can’t be buddies. I really had to crack the whip and come down on it. That was kind of a side I don’t think they saw coming,” Rogers said. “It happened so quickly and we noticed it happening so quickly. It was one of those moments of not looking back. I no longer had a choice to be their buddies.”
It was a tough sacrifice to make, but boy did it pay off.
Return to glory
Rogers and his assistant coach Darren Serna had the same dream for the Redwood water polo program.
They remembered the Redwood teams of old – back when the Rangers were the team to beat in the South Valley. That was their vision when Rogers took over as coach.
“We feel we’ve built the dynasty that we want,” Rogers said. “We learned right away that we had some pretty special kids that have done everything we asked of them with no complaints. It was all their effort. Because of them we brought Redwood back.”
The Bravante brothers were two of those kids.
Mario was Redwood’s dominant player last year, leading the Rangers to their first outright West Yosemite League title in 23 years. When he graduated, it was up to Matt to take over that lead role.
Turns out the brothers wear the same shoe size.
“[Matt] had large shoes to fill with his brother gone. It was a tough position to fill. Matt didn’t do it right away, but we got to see Matt blossom into a leader,” Rogers said. “He’s fierce. He’s driven. When he starts to do something, in his mind he already has it done. He has the confidence, determination and heart to do whatever he can.”
Tulare County’s player of the year merely led the Central Section with 176 points while scoring 82 goals and making 94 assists. On defense he added 85 steals.
With Matt in command, the Rangers did not lose a game until the final contest of the season.
He knows none of it would be possible if not for the brothers who went before him.
“Being the youngest is such an advantage,” Matt said. “Will stepped out into a sport we didn’t know and convinced us to start playing at a young age. He’s the only reason I’m talking to you [for a player of the year interview]. My biggest influence was Mario. Everything I did this year was something he taught me.”
Lose it to save it
Now that the Bravante brothers have all played their final games for Redwood, their relationship with Rogers can return to what it once was.
Ironically, temporarily sacrificing their personal friendships for the good of the team ended up strengthening their bond rather than driving it apart.
“It’s a hard transition to make when you go from someone who is your friend you just goof off with to taking orders from him. It took a while but in the end it made us closer,” Matt said. “Both [Rogers and Serna] are like father figures to me because we’re so close.”
Matt said he had no idea how great of a coach Rogers could be back when he and his brothers were recruiting him for the position.
Although Rogers had dreams of returning Redwood to glory, he had no idea if that was even possible.
Consider them all pleasantly surprised.
“Major is definitely the best motivating coach I’ve ever played for. He makes you put your whole heart into it,” Matt said. “He teaches you more about life than he does at water polo. He’s in business of creating futures.”
That’s high praise for Rogers’ life lessons considering how well the water polo part went.