Acorns junior Andrew Hitchcock has been a tour de force this season. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Ryan Gautschi admits he’s been blown away by the effort, enthusiasm and play of the Live Oak High boys water polo team this season. Calling it perhaps his most enjoyable year of coaching ever, Gautschi has a roster comprised of seven boys and eight girls, with several players on the team having never played the sport before practice started in August. 

“We’re a very beginner group,” he said. “When the season started, I honestly thought  we’d be the last place team in the league. But this group has been amazing. They beat Evergreen Valley and Santa Teresa, and they are beyond impressing me.”

Even with a lack of overall numbers in the program and players who are taking up the sport for the first time, the Acorns are not bereft of talent. In fact, they have a powerhouse in Andrew Hitchcock, a 6-foot-6, 225-pound junior hole-set who in one match this season scored 11 of the team’s 13 goals. 

“He’s one of the largest, most talented players I’ve ever coached,” Gautschi said. “He has the ability to play D1 at almost any college and is 100 percent the real deal. His size and intelligence in the sport is what really stands out. I’ve coached him on a club team since he was 9, and he shoots the ball from half court harder than guys I played with in college. The speed of his shot is unreal.”

In senior Rhett Thorson, Live Oak has a player who combines savvy and talent to produce results. In a match earlier this season, Thorson scored five goals on eight shots, a remarkable display of pinpoint accuracy (45 percent field goal shooting is considered excellent). Thorson plays physical and has the size and strength to be a strong hole-set offensively and defensively. 

“Rhett has a very accurate and powerful shot,” Gautschi said. “He has made it easier for us this year because I can put him at hole-set and you can’t leave him open just to prevent Andrew from getting the ball because he’ll make you pay. It makes it difficult for teams to double team Andrew and vice versa. Their abilities provide space for each other to make plays.”

Karrine Leong, who is known for her swimming accomplishments, has developed into an impact water polo player against the guys no less. A utility player, Leong is the backbone of the team’s defense. Leong possesses tremendous stamina and endurance, which serves her well in the late stages of a match. 

“She doesn’t get tired as the typical water polo player would,” Gautschi said. “Her endurance is non-stop so she can get back defense and pick up the opponent who is on a slower transitioning player. She’s my safety net and is always back on defense first.”

Leong, who rarely if ever comes out of a match, isn’t the only standout girl who has made an impact on the team. Emma James has been terrific defensively, as she has the ability to smother opposing players and prevent them from getting a solid look at the goal or even trying to make a pass to a teammate. Ethan Caspillo has also been productive and solid at both ends of the pool. Brownynne Springs, Melanie Klem and Tyler Wilde have been strong as well, with Gautschi calling Wilde the “heart and soul of our team” as the last line of defense. 

“Tyler has done a phenomenal job, not just this year but for the last three years,” Gautschi said. 

Gautschi’s entire view of coaching has been turned upside down because of this year’s group, which has done wonders in his eyes. 

“Our theme this year is to have fun,” Gautschi said. “This group has been amazing. They’ve been very strong and fundamentally sound, and I didn’t expect that. 

They’re amazing and they listen better than your typical players. In one aspect, it’s been a really weird season because I feel like I’ve toned down my coaching a lot. I  didn’t want to be as intense or competitive as I usually am because it was such a young group, but it’s really been interesting because ultimately they’ve been more passionate than other teams I’ve coached before that had more talent. I can ask this team after a win if they want a day off the next day, and the whole group will emphatically say no. It’s been eye opening and a blast.”

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