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Buich, San Juan Hills enjoying fast rise to the top
Ivan Buich’s first objective for his San Juan Hills boys water polo team this fall was probably different than the aspirations of the other coaches for Saturday’s CIF-SS championships.
The second-year coach simply wanted to win a single league match, an appropriate target considering that the Stallions didn’t claim one from 2013-2015.
“Our goal was to win one (league) game – 100 percent,” Buich said, “and we’ll go from there.”
San Juan Hills will aim for one more victory Saturday, but it will remarkably be for a CIF-SS title.
“To tell you the truth,” Buich said between chuckles, “I need to pinch myself.”
The vastly improved and unseeded Stallions (18-11) play third-seeded Burroughs of Burbank (24-6) in the Division 5 final at the Woollett Aquatics Center in Irvine at 10 a.m.
San Juan Hills’ first appearance in a section final appropriately kicks off a seven-match championship card at Woollett. The Stallions won five league games, enough to share the Sea View League crown with Tesoro and Mission Viejo, and have gobbled up their postseason opportunities.
San Juan Hills upset top-seeded Corona, 8-6, in the semifinals and edged No. 4 seed Murrieta Mesa, 10-9, in the quarterfinals. The Stallions won both matches on the road, a challenge that doomed top seeds Northwood (Division 4) and Katella (Division 7).
But their journey began two years ago with the hire of Buich. He left his assistant coaching positions of two years at Santa Margarita to test his head coaching skills at San Juan Hills.
The 30-year-old Croatian, with a deep love for water polo, looked past the Stallions’ losses and saw promise along with a beautiful home pool overlooking San Juan Capistrano.
“There’s got to be talent here,” he thought. “There are people playing club (water polo) everywhere. … After (our first) Hell Week and I coached them for a couple weeks, they just wanted it. They had talent.”
The ability surfaced this fall under Buich, who stresses overall skill development. Senior utility Brent McClain, a former baseball player, has scored 112 goals against a challenging schedule.
McClain also serves as co-captain with senior attacker Austin Silveria.
Senior goalie Andrew Mansoor, in his second year of playing water polo, has 304 saves.
Buich has developed three 2-meter defenders in Jared Pagal, Eric Jones and Erik Smith. Most teams lean on just two primary defenders.
Buich also introduced 6-foot-2 freshman center Max Miller (85 goals, 78 steals) to the county.
“(San Juan Hills) had these kids. They just needed to be tapped,” he said. “They needed to be pushed. They needed to be taught. … I knew that there was upside to this program.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t think it was going to happen this year. (But) I knew it was going to happen.”
Buich started playing water polo as a 7 year with the Gusar club in Mlini, Croatia. His grandfather, Tiho Kopitovic, also played for Gusar and introduced him the club that competes in the calm waters of the Adriatic Sea.
“(He’s) my No. 1 influence in my life of water polo,” Buich said of grandfather, who died about a 1½ years ago.
Buich now coaches multiple water polo teams. A protégé of former JSerra coach Petar Asic, the former Golden West League player also coaches the San Juan Hills girls and the 18-and-under boys with Orange County Water Polo Club.
While the Stallions want one more victory Saturday, they’ve already improved as much as any team.
“A lot of it had to do with our coaching,” McClain said. “He brought us together and really taught us how to play together as a team and as a family.”
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