Spencer Heaton signed up for water polo his freshman year mostly to stay in shape for other sports he plays basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring.
But this fall, the senior is one of the most experienced players returning from Pacheco water polo's unexpected playoff run last year.
"I actually started water polo to be in shape. I never expected to be in the position I am," Heaton said. "I was actually in the field to start off with, and then the goalie at that time wanted to be in the field, so he said, 'Hey Spencer, you want to be goalie?' I was just excited to take a break, and I did pretty well."
There was a lot to learn about how to be a high school goalkeeper, and a lot to learn about how to stand your ground.
"The level of competition from JV to varsity is quite a big change in water polo," Heaton said. "JV, they're not really aiming at your head. In varsity, they kind of do that to intimidate you on the first one. Then they can hit the corners and everything, so I had to learn how to reach for those positions, and I still have to work on it every single day."
Heaton is the centerpiece of a team that hopes to recreate its improbable run to the playoffs last year, in which the Panthers defeated Los Banos a team with its own legitimate playoff ambitions twice in league play to qualify.
"He's so focused on water polo. I think in the past, water polo was just something for him to do in the fall, and now it's really become his sport," Pacheco coach Josh Weinberger said. "He's looking for scholarships and he's looking to get recruited. He's intensified his energy."
Getting back to the playoffs is easier said than done even if the league remains as watered down as it was last year after the split between the Western Athletic Conference teams and the Valley Oak League teams. Pacheco lost the main core of the team Brian King, Gabriel Andrade, Daniel Judson and Anthony Juarez.
"It was a pretty big hit, but we still have a lot of great players. A lot of players that were trained by those guys as well," Weinberger said. "The attitude is improved. I think we have a lot of new players, and a lot of eager players, and I think molding the attitude from last year has helped these players be better prepared with a better attitude for this year."
The team is expecting opponents to view them differently this year as well.
"We expect that we're not the underdog anymore, that people will be expecting more from us," Weinberger said. "So we can't sit on our laurels and stay stagnant."
Last year's 17-2 first-round playoff loss to Ripon exposed the Panthers' biggest weakness speed, according to Weinberger. That and conditioning are the two biggest focal points for the team's preseason practice.
"I think we have enough people from last year that tasted the playoffs," Heaton said. "Hopefully the new guys will get that energy from everybody else. It's pretty exciting. I definitely want to go as far as we can. There is a little bit of sense of urgency this year."
The new Pacheco squad will have a few more games to iron things out. Weinberger was hired so late last year that he wasn't able to get the team into any tournaments. The Panthers played two preseason games before jumping into league play.
This year, Pacheco has preseason tournaments lined up in Visalia, Turlock and Sunnyside High School in Fresno, and hope to have about eight to 10 games under their belt by the time they open league play against defending champion Ceres.
Pacheco opens the season in a 6 p.m. home game Sept. 12 against Tracy.
Enterprise reporter David Witte can be reached by phone at 388-6565 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org