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The 2023 PanAmerican Water Polo Championships Team USA athletes display their gold medals and the flag that represents their country with pride. Back row, left to right: Stefan Vukojevic, Grayson Taylor, Hanrui Liu, Diego Dantas, Eamon Bruhn and Jack Davis; Front row, left to right: Tosh Hawkins, Sungwon Aden Shin, Sebastian Guido, Kenly Braylen Axline, Max Bruhn and Luke Anderson; pictured with Head Coach Cyrus Kahangi, Coach Siarhei Kananovich, and Coach Tommy Corcoran. Photo courtesy of PanAm Aquatics.
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San Diego new hotbed for water polo after international win

DEL MAR — Thirteen Del Mar Water Polo Club athletes, including four that also play for Cathedral Catholic High School’s powerhouse program, recently returned home from Lima, Peru with a gold medal and another championship title at the 2023 PanAm U15 Water Polo Championships.

This international competition, which took place from Aug. 28 to Sept. 3, marks a significant benchmark for water polo in San Diego, which is quickly becoming a new hotbed of young, water polo talent.

Southern California has long been home to the development of elite water polo athletes; however, Orange County has historically been the epicenter of athletic talent due to the number of top clubs and high school water polo programs located in the geographical region.

As water polo continues to rise in popularity, the sport is seeing a growth in the number of top clubs and high school water polo programs outside of Orange County, specifically in San Diego county.

On the heels of winning their second National Championship Title at USA Water Polo’s 2023 Junior Olympics, 13 athletes from Del Mar Water Polo Club’s winning team were invited to represent Team USA at the 2023 PanAm U15 Water Polo Championships in Lima, Peru.

The roster included: Luke Anderson, Sungwon Aden Shin, Diego Dantas, Sebastian Guido, Maximus Bruhn, Tosh Hawkins, Eamon Bruhn, Hanrui Liu, Jack Davis, Grayson Taylor, Team Captain Kenly Braylen Axline and Stefan Vukojevic.

These athletes faced formidable teams from Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.

“We’re excited to play against all the different countries here at Pan Am,” said I Team Captain Kenly Braylen Axline during a mid-tournament interview. “It’s a super-good learning experience for our team …and we’re getting better as the tournament goes on.”

Team USA had two athletes that ranked as the Top Five Scorers in the tournament, both of whom are members of Del Mar Water Polo Club in San Diego. Axline was awarded top scorer in the tournament with 57 total goals, while Sungwon Aden Shin ranked as the fifth top scorer with 31 total goals. Every field player on Team USA scored at least one goal throughout the tournament, though perhaps more notable is USA’s strong defensive presence.

From a strictly statistical standpoint, Team USA saw 29 goals enter their net over the seven-day tournament, while Colombia, the silver medalists and second on the list of least goals scored against, saw 54 goals scored against them. This reflects the defensive capabilities of every member of the team, as goalkeeper is just one aspect of a strong defense. During the Championship final against Team Colombia, offensive and defensive mastery was demonstrated by Team USA. In the first 30 seconds of the game, Colombia won the sprint and therefore held the initial possession. However, Axline blocked Colombia’s first shot while assisting on defense; and when Colombia recovered the ball, Axline then stole the ball.

Axline also was the first to score in the championship game, firing cross cage from center. Hanrui Liu made the assist with an entry pass at the perfect angle for Axline to thunder the shot into the cage.

Later in the first quarter, as powerhouse Grayson Taylor essentially shut down Colombia’s center, battling over open water, Colombia had no other option than to take a risky shot. USA’s defense had put pressure on every player and funneled the ball to a favorable outcome. Colombia recovered the ball and was able to get a lob off under heavy pressure from elite two-way specialist Diego Dantas, which goalie Luke Anderson, reacting with cat-like reflexes, tipped out of the cage. Colombia attempted another outside shot after again getting the ball back, which was then field blocked by Axline. With 20-second shot clocks, the game’s fast pace saw Colombia’s three rapid-fire attempts at scoring thwarted by the depth and skill of Team USA’s crushing defense.

Led by Head Coach Cyrus Kahangi, Coach Siarhei Kananovich and Coach Tommy Corcoran, all of whom have coached and played at the highest levels, Team USA went undefeated throughout the tournament, achieving decisive wins in all their games and earning the gold medal with a first place ranking in the Platinum Championship Division.

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