Coach Garrett Hall is a realist about the complexities of water polo, but even he was pleasantly surprised with the progress his Hood River Valley boys team is making early this season.

“Practice is going surprisingly well,” he said recently. “With last year’s season of no-contact and a limited club schedule due to COVID, I was expecting players to be pretty rusty. We scrimmaged the first day of practice though, and play was pretty close to game ready on day one.

“Obviously with a sport as complicated as water polo, we still have a lot of ground to cover, but much more solid than I was expecting.”

Hall switched the practice strategy for the beginning of the season, traditionally heavy on conditioning. But the Hood River Aquatic Center is closing for two weeks of maintenance and because of that Hall said he is “keeping straight conditioning to a minimum and focusing heavily on skills and tactics.”

While the pool is closed, the team will practice in the Columbia River, where the conditioning sessions will ramp up, Hall said.

The first-year high school head coach, but long-time local club coach, said his three seniors — Moze Banks, Aden Cross, and Tristan Smith — will figure in the starting rotation. Other than that, “the starting lineup is still up in the air and down to the dedication that each team member shows into these next few weeks,” Hall said.

Cross is one of two captains, who Hall said are “both highly skilled, knowledgeable and excellent leaders.” Cross is the starting goalie with excellent leadership instincts and a dedication second to none (he spent the off season memorizing the rule book). Junior Lucas Elliott is the other captain and has been part of the Hood River water polo program since elementary school. Elliott plays with a Junior Olympic club in Portland outside of the high school season.

“We are starting over from square one this year,” Hall said. “Both offense and defense will be focused on creativity and keeping the opponent off balance.”

HRV’s coaching staff also includes first-time assistants Jed Little and Brent Ocheskey. Little is an HRV alumni who will be working with goalies; Ocheskey is the father of two alumni.

Hall said expectations are lofty with such a successful program as HRV’s.

“With such a young team (only three seniors), it is difficult to say whether we will be able to live up to that legacy,” Hall said. “That being said, I have a really good feeling about this team. We have an incredible level of buy-in on the program and the goals of the team. Everyone is putting in hard work at every practice and bringing in questions and discussions about the things we worked on in the last practice.”

Hall said he has “been working with a lot of these boys since they were scrawny little kids, and now that they have grown into young men, all those years of practice are coming to fruition … If we don’t achieve the same level of success that HRV has seen in the past, I think the blame can be solidly laid at my feet, because I truly believe these boys are willing and able to take on the best in the state.”