Max Cusator could have coasted.
He was the leader of a deep and talented group of seniors who made Buchanan High the heavy favorite to repeat as Central Section Division I boys water polo champions.
But Cusator and his teammates weren't satisfied with simply being a good, or even great, team.
"We wanted to be a dominant force in our area," Cusator said. "In the middle of (preseason conditioning), coach read us a quote: 'Hard works beats talent when talent doesn't work hard.'
"We knew we had to push ourselves to the next level. We couldn't worry about the opposition or play down to a team. We always had the same mentality: play our game and establish what we want to do."
The Bears had what is widely considered to be the most dominant team the section has seen in at least 10 years with Cusator, The Bee's Player of the Year, leading the way.
The 6-foot-3, 160-pounder scored five goals as Buchanan steamrolled Clovis 12-5 in the D-I final to cap a 29-3 season that included a Tri-River Athletic Conference title. The Bears were undefeated against section opposition, outscoring those teams 230-71 -- an average score of 16.4-5.1.
"We had a really great team, a great group of guys to be part of a team with. I'm really going to miss them," Cusator said. "It felt pretty great to achieve what we did, especially as a senior group. We wanted to show what we were capable of, and I think we did a good job of that.
"When you play together for five to six years, there's a chemistry that builds. We knew how to work well together. We were a well-oiled machine."
Cusator was an All-Bee selection as a junior and one of three Buchanan players to score more than 80 goals for a team that went 28-4 and beat Clovis 8-7 for the D-I title in 2012.
He blossomed into a more well-rounded player as a senior with team-leading totals of 99 goals (on 52% shooting accuracy) and 61 steals to go along with 44 assists, 25 ejections drawn, eight penalties drawn and 15 field blocks while earning TRAC MVP and All-Valley D-I co-MVP honors.
"The biggest thing he's done in the last year is become a complete player. He realized scoring is just one aspect of the game," Bears co-coach Dave Pickford said. "A lot of seniors look around and go, 'Well, I'm on top, why work hard?' But he's got goals of being the best player outside of just around here. He's become a good defender, a good shot blocker. He can create his own shot. He's a good shooter and a good teammate."
Teammates appreciated Cusator's tenacity in all aspects of the game, be it scoring, passing, playing defense or sprinting to lead the counter attack.
"He's not a selfish player, but he is very confident in his ability to finish when that's his role," said Austin Fennacy, Buchanan's senior goalie who helped introduce water polo to Cusator when they were in the seventh grade. "He knows when the shot is and isn't his, so he works to create good shots for the team."
Cusator wants to play college water polo at a four-year school in Southern California that offers kinesiology as a major but hasn't finalized his plans yet.
Player of the Year Max Cusator
Qualifications: Tri-River Athletic Conference Player of the Year and All-Valley co-MVP for a Buchanan team that went 29-3 while capturing its second straight league and Central Section Division I titles. Cusator, who is being recruited by Long Beach State and Pepperdine according to co-coach Nic Maes, capped a three-year varsity career by scoring 99 goals (on 52% shooting accuracy), to go with 44 assists, 61 steals, 25 ejections drawn, eight penalties drawn and 15 field blocks. He is a three-time Bee All-Star, including 2013 spring swimming team.
Coach says: "Buchanan has a lot of great players, but when we played them, our main focus was, 'What are we going to do with Max.' There hasn't been a high school player who counter attacks like Max in our section in a couple years," -- Clovis co-coach Matt Berry, who watched Cusator get five goals in Buchanan's 12-5 win in the D-I final.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6103, firstname.lastname@example.org or @NickG_FB on Twitter.