In his 27th season at Santa Monica High School, water polo coach Matthew Flanders has returned for one more go-around with a veteran boys squad.

The Vikings sit at 6-3 in the regular season after a Sept. 13 victory over Grenada Hills Charter, and are back on the hunt for the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) playoffs after missing out on the dance last season. The unit is as tight-knit as they come, led by Flanders’ son and Samohi scoring record holder Darragh Flanders, who “sets a standard for performance” in the locker room.

“The class that’s coming out of Samohi right now … is basically a bunch of kids that I started coaching (in) water polo when they were 10 to 12 years old,” Flanders said. “So we’re (about) to see those kids graduate out now, they’re a pretty good group of kids, dedicated student-athletes. It’s kind of a bittersweet year for me seeing them out the door. Filling their shoes is going to be hard.”

Darragh has continued the Flanders legacy by earning a bevy of honors at Samohi. Along with holding the school scoring record, he earned a second-team All-American nod from the National Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association last season, anointing the then-junior as one of the 28 best high school players in the United States. Coach Flanders’ eldest son, Cormac, was also successful at Samohi and currently plays college polo for Cal Lutheran.

“He’s developed into one of the premier players … in our area,” the coach said of his son. “He’s being recruited by several universities. He’s been playing since he was 10. It’s been great to watch him. I played water polo, his mom played water polo, his uncle played water polo. It’s a water polo kind of family, so he’s got the pedigree.

In the pool, Darragh generates the majority of points for the Vikings, achieved by throwing a ball into a soccer-style net with a goalie protecting. Water polo games are separated into four 7-minute periods, with teams switching nets halfway through the contest. The sport takes elements from basketball, soccer and hockey; along with the physicality of the wrestling mat.

Undaunted by the physical nature of the game, the Vikings picked up early-season momentum with wins over Grenada Hills Charter, Milken and Brentwood, as well as a 3-1 record at the Weisz Tournament. At the tournament, the squad defeated Villa Park, Valencia and Troy, but fell to El Dorado.

Flanders uses the opening stretch of the season to test out his supporting cast, as “everyone needs to step up” when defenses contain Darragh. The coach tries to reduce the stagnant nature of water polo in favor of an up-tempo style with emphasis on movement and spacing for other options.

“(We) try to get as many opportunities to get experience (as we can) … we need to develop a supporting cast,” the coach said. “We play a lot of games here to develop our outside shooting game and our intensity so we can take it to the next level. We’re really close to being pretty darn good.”

Aside from Darragh, other options for the Vikings include the senior trio of Blase Londono, Pablo Rivera-Clark and Joaquin Auger. For Flanders, the more experience, the better.

“You look at our Olympic (water polo) team, it’s a lot of 25-year-olds, 26-year-olds, you don’t get the gymnastics (team), phenomenal team of teenagers … it’s a team sport, it takes a lot of development of skill and tactics.”

Later in the season comes Bay League play, where the Vikings are matched up against other beach city schools with strong aquatic aptitude, such as Palos Verdes and Redondo Union. A top-three finish in the league will qualify the Vikings for the CIF playoffs, a feat accomplished by Flanders more than 20 times in his accomplished coaching career.

Thomas Leffler has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Broadcast Journalism from Penn State University and has been in the industry since 2015. Prior to working at SMDP, he was a writer for AccuWeather and managed...