Key Elements in Pali’s Water Polo Success

By Sue Pascoe

After the Maggie Gilbert Aquatic Center was completed on campus, Palisades High School launched a boys water polo program in 2011 under Coach Adam Blakis.

Since the beginning, the Dolphins have dominated league play and have won the City Section championship five out of six years, including the last four seasons. They beat Granada Hills in last year’s final, 7-4.

“Since we started, we have had an expectation that we were going to be the best team in the city,” Blakis said. “And we have accomplished that.”

Coach Adam Blakis has praised Zach Wunder’s improvement.
Photo: Ben Trask

More elusive has been Pali’s quest to compete on an even level with teams that dominate the sport in the South Bay or with neighbors to the north that have long-established programs.

On Oct. 6-7, the Dolphins played in the South Bay tournament at Mira Costa against some of the toughest teams in the Southland. They lost to Costa Mesa in their final game, 11-9, to finish eighth.

“It was our best finish at the South Bay,” said Blakis, whose team beat La Habra 15-2, Hoover 14-7 and Santa Monica 6-5, after initially losing to Arroyo Grande. (This is the first year Pali has beaten SamoHi twice, both in a regular game and in tournament play.)

Last Thursday, Oct. 12, the Dolphins continued preparing for the playoffs by defeating Brentwood, 13-6.

Blakis said that unlike his past Pali teams, this one is more defensive minded. “We run an up-tempo offense, with lots of movement, that can create opportunities for other teams on counter attacks,” the coach said, noting the boys set the tone, collectively deciding to play tough defense.

“We have an excellent goalie, Mike Melnik, who consistently comes up with big saves,” Blakis said. “Theo Trask is our defensive anchor and is able to shut down and frustrate the opponent’s top player.”

He explained, “Theo has a very unique style of playing defense; he does not try to out-muscle his opponents, rather he uses his game sense to outwit.”

Player improvement has been key this year on a team that has only two seniors. “The biggest surprise has been Maximo Speiser,” Blakis said. “I did not expect him to start, but he worked hard in the off-season to improve on his weaknesses—and he leads by example by working hard in practice.” Speiser is a junior.

Blakis also praised junior Zach Wunder. “He has the best shot on our team, but early in the season, he was hesitant to pull the trigger. Zach has found his niche and now can be relied on to score in every game.”

About half of the water polo players are also on the swim team, which Blakis considers an important asset.

“Coach Maggie Nance and her staff do an excellent job of leveling our kids up,”he said. “Maggie and I have a great relationship, where we understand that the athlete comes first. We both strive to create an environment where each individual kid can be successful.”

He also credits a stable coaching staff of Kirk Lazaruk and Sam Elias, who have been with the program for years, and “having a great facility, supportive staff and parents.”

This year for the first time, there will be a state water polo tournament, which provides a new goal for the Dolphins, provided they reach the city finals. “We’re striving to be the best in state,” Blakis said.

Pali plays Venice at home on Oct. 23 and their last league game is at San Pedro on Oct. 25.

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