It is supposed to be a game circled on the calendar: Wednesday, Sept. 27. That’s when the men’s water polo powerhouse West Valley Vikings is scheduled to come to Livermore. The same school that destroyed the Hawks 20-1 in the playoffs last season.
If nothing else, a visit from West Valley is a chance for the Hawks to measure themselves. The Vikings, a formidable program that the Las Positas men have yet to beat since the program launched in 2015. The Vikings are coming off a heartbreaking double-overtime defeat in the state championship game, nearly dethroning the dynasty of Golden West College (which now has won six straight state titles). So West Valley comes to Las Positas on a mission.
But this won’t be a day of revenge for the Hawks. Or even a test for where they stand against the best. At this point, Las Positas men’s water polo is just hoping the game happens.
The 2023-24 season might be in jeopardy.
After finishing with a 19-16 record and making the NorCal playoffs for the first time in school history, the Hawks are desperate to simply field a team.
“We went from being a playoff-caliber team to not sure if we’re going to have a season,” said Jason Craighead, coach of the men’s water polo team and steward of the school’s water sports program. “We’re looking small. We’re kind of struggling with numbers right now. They are a great group.”
The Hawks were prepared for a turnover as 10 of the 17 players on the roster from last season’s historic teams were sophomores. That included the Hawks’ top scorer in Kyle Young, who led the state in assists, and starting goalie Quentin Perry. Of the 11 players who started games last season, only four were freshmen.
But as historic as their success was the exodus of players. In addition to the sophomores, the Hawks lost two more players due to what Craighead described as “life circumstances” and another three players due to ineligibility.
“It was a perfect storm,” he said.
The Hawks still have its foundation in place. A few of last season’s standout freshmen are back, according to Craighead.
Patrick Aiello was arguably the second-best player on the team as a freshman last season. He finished last season with 108 points (79 goals and 29 assists) along with 51 steals, second-most on the team. As a freshman, Zachary Ulrich was one of only five players to appear in every game. He finished with 28 goals (6th), 16 assists (7th) and 25 steals (7th). Both Aiello and Ulrich are expected to be among the team leaders for this upcoming season.
Ilya Krasnyy, the backup goalie as a freshman, appeared in 21 games and registered a 45.1 save percentage. The Hawks went 3-0 in the games he started. He’s the starter now.
“He’s really, really motivated,” Craighead said.
One key loss appears to be Ryan Lichlyter, who started 24 of the 34 games he played as a freshman. His 54 goals were the fifth-most on the team. But the Hawks did land a freshman recruit in Vincent Vandersall. He played at Livermore High last season, scoring 42 goals on 115 shots.
The question now is how to fill out the roster around the core. The Hawks have been reaching out to former players with remaining eligibility as well as local high schools who might have former players looking for a college. They were even recruiting players from the athletic department’s booth at Welcome Day.
Early in the season, the team awaiting eligibility reports for the roster. LPC was forced to pull out of the North vs. South Tournament at UC Merced on Aug. 25. The Hawks also pulled out of the Nyquist Invitational at West Valley College on Sept. 1. They’d played in the Nyquist in each of the tournament’s last five years.
Craighead said he hopes to have a team ready for the Hawk Mini tournament versus Santa Rosa on Sept. 8. That’s the only game on the schedule before big, bad West Valley comes to town.
The Vikings could very well be 11-0. It would’ve been the perfect opportunity to prove themselves and gauge where they are. But for the Hawks, at this point, they’re just hoping it happens.
Top image, In 2022, the Hawks men’s water polo team made the playoffs. As the 2023 season begins, the team is rebuilding. Alan Lewis/Express Archives
Justin Gomes is the sports and photo editor of The Express. Follow him @JustinG76412521.