Jeffrey Wheeler and Sawyer Nordell wanted no part of the easier path.
A couple of months after helping Golden West High School capture the first Central Section boys water polo championship in school history, a 7-5 victory over rival Redwood in the 2014 Division II final, the seniors-to-be went to coach Rick Nordell with a request.
They wanted the team to move up a division to take on Buchanan, Clovis, Clovis North and Clovis West, the powers of Clovis Unified that have had a 20-year stranglehold on the section’s top boys water polo division.
“I felt there was this mentality that Clovis, Buchanan, all those teams were untouchable,” Wheeler said. “That got to me.”
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It got to the younger Nordell, too.
“My personality is always to go for the challenge,” said Nordell, whose father has coached the Trailblazers for 21 seasons. “We wanted to see if we could play with the Clovis people. Could we get top four? Top two? I thought we could.”
So instead of attempting a repeat during their second season of a three-year cycle in Division II under the section’s competitive equity-driven divisional alignment, the Trailblazers petitioned for a promotion.
1992 The last time a non-Clovis Unified school won the Central Section Division I boys water polo championship.
Golden West got it, and on Saturday will become the first non-Clovis Unified school to play in the D-I boys final since 1994 when the fourth-seeded Trailblazers (21-8) face defending champion and second-seeded Clovis (20-7) at 1 p.m. in the conclusion of a doubleheader at the Jim Coiner Aquatics Complex. It will follow the top-seeded Cougars (28-5) hosting No. 2 and defending champ Clovis West (24-6) for the girls D-I title at 10 a.m.
Hanford was the last non-Clovis Unified school to reach the boys final, losing 24-18 against Clovis West. Hoover was the last school other than Buchanan, Clovis or Clovis West to win a title, beating Clovis West 14-13 in 1992, back when all teams played under a single playoff division.
“I remember when it was all one division and I loved it, when it was the top 16 teams and it meant something to get there,” said Rick Nordell, who was an assistant at Hanford in 1994. “When (Wheeler and Sawyer Nordell) said they wanted to go up, I was like ‘Let’s do it.’ ”
The Trailblazers reached the final with a dramatic 9-7 upset of top-seeded and seven-time section champion Buchanan in the semifinals Wednesday. In the quarterfinals, they earned an 8-7 victory over No. 5 and reigning D-I runner-up Clovis North.
Our goal was to make it to the final, and if we got there, then we’ll re-adjust our goals. Now we have to re-adjust.
Golden West boys water polo coach Rick Nordell
Golden West fell behind 4-0 in the first five minutes against Buchanan, and the deficit created doubt about whether the program had made the right move in asking for a promotion.
“I was thinking, ‘Man, is this how it’s going to end?’ ” said Wheeler, a dual citizen of the United States and Ecuador who played for the Ecuadorian national team in last summer’s PanAmerican Games. “I didn’t want it to be a blowout, so we started chipping away.”
The Trailblazers cut the deficit to 7-6 heading to the fourth period and got the tying goal from Wheeler with 5:24 left. Sophomore Jens Niederreiter scored the go-ahead goal with 2:59 remaining, allowing Golden West the chance to become the first section D-I champion from Visalia since Mt. Whitney beat Clovis West 9-8 for the title in 1989.
“That was the biggest win we’ve ever had,” Rick Nordell said. “You measure the level of your team against the Clovis schools; can you compete with them? And now we have.”
Golden West figured to be a contender for the D-II title again this season, had it remained there, with the return of four starters in Wheeler, Nordell, Brad Dennis and goalkeeper Hayden Niederreiter.
16-4 Golden West’s record since Jack Felsted became eligible Oct. 5 following a transfer from Mt. Whitney
The Trailblazers also brought up sophomores Bret Dennis, Jens Niederreiter and Brandon Green, and further solidified their lineup with the addition of Jack Felsted, a former Mt. Whitney standout who was ineligible until Oct. 5 under a section-imposed sanction for a senior-season transfer. Golden West has gone 16-4 since Felsted, the West Yosemite League’s MVP, joined the lineup.
Figuring he had the talent to compete with the section’s elite, Rick Nordell prepared Golden West for the D-I postseason by upgrading its schedule. The Trailblazers entered the Clovis Championships for the first time, going 1-3 with blowout losses to Clovis (18-6) and Buchanan (12-5) without Felsted.
Golden West withdrew from its own co-hosted tournament in Visalia in favor of the more challenging Arroyo Grande Tournament and the DeLong Invitational, where it beat Clovis North 11-10 in overtime before eventually losing to Granite Bay (9-8) in the final.
It was a battle-testing process that has given the Trailblazers an opportunity to end Clovis Unified’s streak.
“It’s like a dynasty Clovis has built for themselves,” Wheeler said. “It would mean a lot to us to knock that off. We want to show the Valley that if you work hard, you can play at that level, too.”
Central Section Water Polo Championships
No. 4 Golden West (21-8) at No. 2 Clovis (20-7), 1 p.m.
No. 3 Porterville (17-5) vs. No. 1 Redwood (18-7), noon at Golden West
No. 2 Edison (27-3) at No. 1 Garces (24-3), noon
No. 2 Clovis West (24-6) at No. 1 Clovis (28-5), 10 a.m.
No. 4 Golden West (19-12) vs. No. 2 Hanford (25-5), 11 a.m. at Lemoore
No. 2 Sierra Pacific (18-6) at No. 1 Selma (21-7), 11 a.m.