Boys Water Polo: Mt. Whitney has best season in Yenigues era

The Pioneers have crushed the competition as players buy in to Coach Yenigues vision

By Jermaine Johnson II @Jerm_10

VISALIA – Head coach Michael Yenigues came to Mt. Whitney five years ago. Upon arrival, he wasn’t just asked to be the head coach of the boy’s water polo team; he was asked to build a competitive program. That is exactly what he did.

Yenigues said it takes about four years to change a program’s culture and get kids excited to play. This year, he is leading the first group of seniors that he has coached during their entire four years. As a result, the team is having their best season they have had since they can remember. They began the year 10-0 and are now 13-2. The Division III Pioneers are 4-0 against teams in their division, and are 9-0 against Division II teams in their section. Their only two losses came against a Division I team, Bullard, and a Division II team El Capitan, outside of the central section.

For the first time in a long time, Mt. Whitney opened up West Yosemite League play with two straight wins. Their second win came last Wednesday against Hanford. “[The Bullpups] are a great rival, we always have really high scoring games,” said Yenigues. “It doesn’t matter how good either team is, whenever we play it’s always a close game.” The game was tightly contested for the duration of the matchup as the two teams went back and forth trading points. The Pioneers earned the 15-13 victory, after some key defensive stops late in the fourth quarter.

Since Mt. Whitney is a small school where water polo isn’t a popular sport, Yenigues knew he didn’t have a lot of players to coach in comparison to some of the bigger schools. That didn’t matter to him and he focused on training the players he had.

“We encourage the kids as much as we can to play club water polo and to join the swimming team,” he said. “A lot of the kids that are doing well have done that. And that has made them  more competitive.”

One of the players that have developed into a standout and has played a key role in Mt. Whitney’s success is senior Johnny Northcutt. He is only in his second full year playing water polo yet he has accounted for 100 goals through 15 games, and is averaging 7.5 points per game. His water polo career started with a random email one day.

“I emailed [Yenigues] late in the season saying that I’m interested in coming out,” said Northcutt. “He told me to get in right away and start practicing with varsity.”

After working with the team, he became serious about his development. He would train for over five hours a day all summer. Northcutt’s story is the vision that Yenigues has for all of his young water polo players.

“From the day he walked in, he’s dedicated himself to the game and getting better. He’s played club water polo and swam on the swim team” said Yenigues. “He just started playing during his sophomore year and he is now one of the better players in the valley. Statistically, he is setting himself apart.”

His hard work is paying great dividends as opposing teams have taken notice to his stellar play.

“Once that first goal goes in, I get double teamed and sometimes triple teamed,” said Northcutt. “When I hear some of the guys on the other team know my name already, I know they already have a game plan going into the water.”

Those double and triple teams present a new challenge for Coach Yenigues and the rest of the team. “How do we balance that they’re going to try and take our best weapon away?” said Yenigues. “He no longer is just playing the role of a great scoring athlete, he’s playing the role of a general.”

Johnny’s brother, Jordan, is a player that has stepped up to take on a big role. Jordan and Connor Brutin are on the outside ready to attack when teams collapse down on Johnny in the center of the pool. Overall, Yenigues says the entire team has stepped up and have developed into really good players. Since he arrived at the school, the players have gotten smarter and don’t require as much coaching.

“The big differentiator with this group is that they understand the game well enough to make their own decisions. I don’t have to yell as much during games because they know what they’re doing.”

Yenigues says the team must utilize their water polo IQ and instincts moving forward, as the competition will only get tougher. Their goal is to win the WYL, and make a deep run in the valley playoffs. As for Johnny Northcutt, he is confident that water polo is something he wants to stick with after high school. He has begun contacting college coaches and may potentially go to a junior college to continue developing and getting stronger.

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