Last spring a couple of players approached Golden West boys water polo coach Rick Nordell.
Sawyer Nordell and Jeffrey Wheeler had an inquiry. They wanted to ask their coach what he thought about of petitioning the Central Section to promote the Trailblazers from Division II to Division I, the section’s top bracket, for the playoffs.
With Golden West returning experienced players from a 25-5 squad that captured the 2014 Division II crown, this year’s version of the Trailblazers wanted to raise the bar. They wanted to compete with the section’s best.
Knowing he didn’t want to hold his players back since they didn’t shy away from setting lofty expectations, Rick obliged.
At the beginning of the 2015-16 school year, Rick, the Golden West coach since 1994, submitted the necessary paperwork to make the move.
Rick heard back shortly after, and Golden West was officially bumped up to Division I. The promotion will be conditional and will be analyzed on a year-to-year basis.
“If the kids didn’t come to me, I probably would have not pushed them and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to go D1,’ ” Rick said. “I’m glad it came from them. I really wasn’t thinking too much about it, but when they said that, I was like, ‘Absolutely. Let’s go for it.’ That was my first reaction. There was no hesitation.”
With Golden West aiming to make a splash in the Division I postseason, Rick made slight adjustments to the schedule, and added the Clovis Championships, one of the premier boys water polo tournaments in Central California, to the team’s itinerary.
And that’s where this past weekend, the Trailblazers got a rude awakening. They posted a 1-3 record at that tournament with their only win, 18-6, coming over a Clovis West B team.
In the three losses, Golden West was defeated by Granite Bay, a Division I squad from the Sac-Joaquin Section, 11-7, and fell to Clovis 18-6. Its other defeat came in a 12-5 loss to Buchanan.
“It’s going to take a lot of training, a lot of determination, discipline and a lot of practice to be able to get to that level definitely,” Sawyer said. “But I think we do have that potential. It’s just if we can realize and live up to our potential.”
Despite its showing at the Clovis Championships, Golden West has proven talent to be successful this season. The Trailblazers have won 45 games since 2013 and expect that number to grow.
Of the seven starters from last year’s Valley championship game, where the Trailblazers spoiled an undefeated Redwood team and its quest for a perfect season in a 7-5 upset victory, four return in Brad Davis, Hayden Niederreiter, Sawyer and Wheeler.
Sawyer, Rick’s son, was an all-West Yosemite League first-team selection from a season ago, tallying 95 points (63 goals and 32 assists) to go along with 51 steals and 30 drawn ejections.
Sawyer missed the Trailblazers season-opening, double-overtime 9-8 loss to Porterville because of an injury, but made his first appearance of the 2015 campaign this last weekend. He finished second on the team with eight goals.
“It’s definitely fun having him on the team,” Rick said. “He’s a key player.”
Niederreiter is one of the top goalkeepers in Tulare County.
As a junior, he recorded 302 saves and led the Trailblazers with 54 steals to earn All-WYL and All-County honors.
Neiderreiter has been in contact with several four-year college programs, including Cal Poly Pomona, MIT, UC Davis and Cal Baptist.
“Our goalie is such a big part of what we do, and who we are out there,” Rick said. “Hayden, he plays himself down, but he’s a fantastic goalie. Colleges are looking at him, and he’s an outstanding goalie. Having a guy like that on our team gives our players a lot of confidence because they know, defensively if a shot goes by, chances are, it’s not going through.”
Wheeler represented Ecuador at the Pan American Games this past summer in Toronto, and has picked up valuable experience while playing for the men’s national water polo team.
Wheeler appeared in all five Ecuador matches as a backup defender, and logged more than 40 minutes.
“The training that I had over the summer was very beneficial,” Wheeler said. “I had to really improve my game to the next tier. With swimming, it just completely made me a better swimmer. I’m just faster, more agile in the water. When it comes to shooting and passing, a lot of their drills really helped me with accuracy and being able to throw the ball further, so that really helped.”
Wheeler registered 15 goals, 28 steals and 20 assists last season, but its the immense growth he has shown as a senior that has Rick impressed.
“There’s been a night and day transformation with him from last year,” Rick said. “He’s walking with way more confidence, with way more pride. His work ethic this year is second to none. He came out — not in a prideful way, just in a confident way — he walks out on the pool deck with his chest out a little more. He has provided some great leadership for the team. He’s a really focused individual this year after going and playing at the Pan American Games.”
Dennis is Golden West’s top returning scorer after racking up 113 goals in 2014. He also posted 34 steals and 27 assists.
Add in transfers Jack Felsted from Mt. Whitney and Carter Hill from Redwood into the mix, and the Trailblazers form a solid starting lineup.
Felsted will have to sit out until October because of transfer rules, but Hill will not. Hill and his family moved into the Golden West area in the offseason.
“Our goal this year is to win another Valley championship, but we want to win league first because we haven’t won league in a while too (since 2008),” Dennis said. “We’re not going to take anyone lightly. There are a lot of great teams in league this year, so that’s our goal.”
News and Notes
•Mustang Charge: Tulare Western is off to a 10-2 start and has won six contests in a row. In 12 games, no team has scored in double figures against the Mustangs. Hanford West (11-6) and Strathmore (8-5) came the closest with nine goals each. The Mustangs are also outscoring their opposition 153-73.
•Visalia Invitational: Over 100 high school boys water polo matches will be played this weekend. On Friday, the 24-team tournament kicks off with games at Golden West, Mt. Whitney, El Diamante and Tulare Union high schools. The aforementioned Visalia schools will also host games on Saturday. Tulare County teams competing are Monache, El Diamante, Dinuba, Mission Oak, Mt. Whitney, Porterville, a Golden West B squad, Exeter, Strathmore, Tulare Union and Tulare Western. Last year’s champion, Redwood, will not be participating after playing in the Clovis Championships last weekend.