In and out of the pool, the water polo champions of Santa Barbara High School are bound together

Imagine taking 10 of your closest friends and forming a team. You play together, eat together, travel together and, of course, socialize. You go out of your way to help your teammates with their achievements while also remaining successful as an individual. Your leader provides companionship combined with tough love. You sleep, breathe and eat your sport. Eventually, a cohesive and ultimately winning team forms.

A team like this sounds almost too good to be true, but this is the formula that transformed the Santa Barbara High School boys water polo team into a dream team.

It’s evident from the team’s record: This month the boys collected Santa Barbara High’s fourth California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Championship. In a close final game against the Ventura Cougars at Long Beach’s Belmont Plaza Olympic pool, the team pulled through 14-11 in what was a tough challenge.

“The game was intense and Ventura is very physical with lots of wrestling above and below the water,” says team member Jeff Cole.

To win, the boys had to adjust to their opponent’s tactics.

“Ventura forced our perimeter shooters to score from long distance instead of letting our centers score from in close,” says Coach Mark Walsh. “But we have a balanced team; we have tough defenders, several strong centers, great outside shooters and a top goalie. Everyone on the team swims very fast and their top condition wears down the other teams.”

The Dons this season went on to command one of the best records in California, 31-4, before losing in a close match, 9-8, against Division I champion El Toro in the semifinals of the post-regular season Masters Tournament in Irvine. Even with the setback, the 11-member team is easily one of the top four teams in the state.

“This is the most talented and most successful boys team I have coached,” says Walsh. “I have had some individual players on previous teams that were better, but this is the best team.”

The team consists of 10 seniors and one junior and most of the seniors have been playing together since they were in eighth grade. Some teammates go even further back. Seniors Jeff Cole, Sam Sweney and Tyler McManigal attended Montecito Union School together. They competed in the Montecito YMCA youth leagues with senior teammate Oliver Fries, a Crane student.

“We have such team chemistry because we are all best friends,” says Cole. “There is no weird competition among one another.”

Santa Barbara High has been a finalist in the prestigious CIF competition for each of the four years the boys have been together, including their most recent win, a bittersweet triumph for the seniors who will soon be leaving their friends and teammates.

Their talents and successes aside, the players are quick to point out that they could not have made it this far without Walsh, who in 10 years as head coach at Santa Barbara High School has won 10 Channel League titles and eight CIF Championships for the girls team and eight Channel League titles and four CIF championships for the boys division.

“Mark Walsh is one of the best coaches in the country any way you look at it,” says Joe Cole, Jeff’s father and a director for the Santa Barbara Water Polo Foundation.

On top of a swimming class he teaches, Walsh has ”forty guys and forty girls” on the polo teams “and he coaches every single one of them,” says Tyler McManigal. “He drills us really hard but he’s like a friend and when you like your coach it’s really easy to want to work hard for him.”

And work hard they do. Every day except game day the team lifts weights and is in the pool from 6 am to 7:30 am. After a full day of school, they pick up where they left off and practice for two and a half more hours.

“My son has learned to be extremely disciplined,” says Benedicte Wolfe, whose son, Ben, is the only junior on the team. “Having seen him waking up at 5:15 am every morning to train, I know it will be a great advantage for him because he will think it’s normal to train hard and succeed.”

The regular polo season begins in September and stretches through the end of November, but the Dons have really been playing since June. Many of the players belong to the Santa Barbara Water Polo Foundation, which offers competition during the high school off-season. Six of the Santa Barbara High School boys played on the Santa Barbara club team winning the 18 and under U.S. National “Junior Olympics” Club Championship over the summer.

“That was unprecedented,” says Joe Cole. “Santa Barbara wasn’t even selected for the pre-tournament top ten, and they beat the Los Angeles all-star club team in the finals, after earlier defeating the best teams from San Diego, Texas, the Bay Area and the Sacramento region.”

A few days after that win, they joined four water polo teammates, coach Walsh and two parents on a plane to Hungary and Croatia to play against some of the best teams in the world.

“Water polo in Hungary is like football in Texas,” says Joe Cole, who was one of the parents on the trip. “Hungary won gold medals in the last two Olympics and water polo is a national obsession.”

For 17 action-packed days and only one day of rest to explore Croatia’s offshore islands, the boys competed with teams from Hungary, Croatia, Kuwait, South Africa, Germany, Slovakia and another Southern California team. During the trip Walsh made his players switch roommates whenever he could.

“Not only in the water but also out of the water the boys became a lot closer,” Joe Cole remembers.

When the team returned, they were more than prepared for the season.

“They were good before, but they were great when they came out of that experience,” says Joe Cole.

For the seniors, the polo future looks bright. For example, McManigal, a goalie, is being recruited by USC and UC San Diego, Jeff’s playing has attracted the attention of Princeton, MIT and Stanford, and Sweney has visited Princeton as well. It doesn’t hurt that many on the team have very good grades.

“We parents think Mark is responsible for the kids doing well in school and having more opportunities for college,” says Joe Cole. “It’s because of his extraordinary coaching.”