After making the Central Coast Section Open Division playoffs last season—signifying it as one of the best eight teams in the CCS—the Los Gatos High boys water polo team knows taking the next step will be its greatest challenge yet.
That’s why the Wildcats enter the 2023 season brimming with excitement, because they’re motivated to close the gap between them and schools such as Harker, Palo Alto and St. Francis. They went a combined 0-6 against Harker and Palo Alto last year but are confident they can be more competitive against those perennial powers this season.
“Other than Bellarmine and Sacred Heart [Prep], the rest of the [best] teams are beatable,” Los Gatos coach Davor Koret said. “We packed up our schedule which is great. So it’s going to be interesting to see how we do.”
The Wildcats play their season-opener against fellow Santa Clara Valley Athletic League De Anza Division power Palo Alto on Sept. 7. Harker and Palo Alto have been the top two teams in the league and Los Gatos is looking to dethrone them this year.
Outside of their tough league schedule, the Wildcats have non-league matches against Bellarmine, Menlo School and are entered to play in the competitive Granite Bay Tournament in late September and the Monterey Bay Invite which is hosted by Stevenson and Carmel in early October.
Los Gatos returns a bevy of talent from last year’s team, including Liam Amburgey, Henry Bakota, Mathijs Dirven, Ryan Madsen, Jacob Weber, Connor Sullivan and Eric Caplener, who was the backup goalie last year and is poised to be a breakout performer in 2023.
“Eric had a great summer, I think he’s going to surprise some teams,” Koret said. “He’s been improving, been watched by some teams for college, this is his year. He’s got a little pressure to perform but I believe he’s going to be able to do his best.”
Amburgey is a true difference-maker and possesses a terrific shot, swims and passes well and gets himself and others in position to score.
“Liam is going to have to perform which I expect to happen,” Koret said. “He’s improved two things we talked throughout in the off-season in order for him to execute his recruiting. He’s been watched by a handful of Division I teams and I’m expecting him to be the one who is going to have to step up.”
Sullivan is another game-changer, having earned 2022 De Anza Division Field MVP honors. But as of the third week of August, the senior hadn’t been cleared to play due to a concussion he sustained earlier in the summer, Koret said.
“We’re still hoping he’s going to play,” Koret said. “We’re kind of on standby, but we do have options with him in the pool or not being in the pool. Of course, we’d much rather have him in the pool. No matter what happens, he’ll be an influential part of the team. He’s always there supporting the team leading from the outside as much as possible, giving the younger ones feedback.”
Los Gatos has one of the most heralded freshmen in the CCS in Richard Runge, a powerful and athletic center-defender whose age belies his spectacular game.
“He brings energy, is strong, tall at 6-4, 6-5, has got knowledge and experience,” Koret said. “From what I’ve seen so far, he brings good stuff and now he just needs some time to adjust to tactics and game plan. It’s exciting. He’s been on our radar and been around the game for a while even though he’s only 14.”
Runge was on a 14U club team that finished top five in the nation in the Junior Olympics, which is one of the biggest tournaments in the club water polo calendar. Young talents don’t go unnoticed as they age up to high school, especially in the CCS where the private schools—particularly the West Catholic Athletic League teams—tend to attract the best players.
So, it’s a big get when a player like Runge decides to stay in town—he lives in Los Gatos—as opposed to enrolling at one of those private school powers.
“All the coaches from the elite or West Catholic schools, they all wanted him on their team,” Koret said.
Sophomores Bakota, Dirven and Madsen will also play a huge role as they’ve all developed since their outstanding freshmen seasons.
“They are looking good and they’ve improved a lot,” Koret said. “They had a lot of playing time last year and we’re expecting much more from them this year.”
Madsen acts and plays well beyond his years.
“When you tell Ryan one time what to do, he does it straight away,” Koret said. “He’s so easy to deal with and doesn’t act like or behave like a regular 15-year-old. He’s pretty mature and his confidence brings out so much in others. Every single game or practice, this kid is spirited and comes in fired up giving 100 percent, and it makes it so much easier and enjoyable to coach a player like him.”
Weber was integral in the team’s success last season because of his consistency and work ethic.
“As he improves, the expectations go higher because he’s that type of player,” Koret said.
Los Gatos finished 19-9 last year but just 7-5 in league play. But the improvement of the returning talent with the addition of Runge has the Wildcats thinking they’re ready to make their move.
“The goal is obviously winning league and making it to the Open Division again,” Koret said. “But we want to make it a regular thing and not just a one-time deal.”