(At right, Former Sunny Hills coach Jim Sprague, left, and current Lancers coach Keith Nighswonger, stand before the alumni players Saturday.)
The gathering, believed to be the first in the program’s illustrious history, attracted former CIF-Southern Section players of the years Don Spicer (1973), Rick Sherburne (1974), Mike Spicer (1980) and Rob Carver (1983) along with 2004 Olympian Omar Amr.
The function also honored former coach Jim Sprague, who along with the late Hank Vellekamp built the Lancers into a four-time CIF championship program and perennial powerhouse in the 1970, ’80s and early ’90s.
“It’s just amazing to see the number of guys who showed,” said Sprague, now an assistant at Los Alamitos.
One player whose name came up but apparently didn’t attend the function Saturday was Gary Figueroa, who helped the United States capture a silver medal in 1984.
“There’s a lot of superstars who went through this program,” said Amr, a 1992 graduate who played varsity water polo for current coach Keith Nighswonger.
While players from different decades rotated in and out the pool for short matches, Sprague, 74, overlooked the action and reminisced with former players.
“There was a lot love being expressed for Sprague,” said Rich Lee, a 1978 graduate.
Some players talked about the lessons the life-lessons they learned as part of the program.
Sherburne recalled the time he arrived two minutes late for a 6 a.m. weightlifting session. He found the door locked. The 1975 graduate still remembers how his heart sank but how he learned to be on time.
“Sprague had a super-positive impact on me,” said Carver, a 1984 graduate. “No one worked harder than us.”
The players also recalled their success in the pool. Don Spicer and Sherburne remembered how they teamed as a new-look double-set at 2 meters. Spicer posted up in front of one post while Sherburne was in front of the other.
The strategy certainly worked. Sunny Hills captured CIF titles in 1971, ’73, ’76 and 1986 and was a CIF runner-up 10 times. The Lancers also captured 24 consecutive league titles.
“Polo made it cool to wear a Speedo (at Sunny Hills),” Spicer said.
The pool deck was decorated with black, yellow and white balloons. Some of the walls featured old yearbook articles and photos, including one that showed Sprague with a beard.
For a school celebrating its 50th anniversary, the water polo program certainly got its due.
“It’s an institution,” said Bill McGarvey, a 1971 graduate.
An OC Register reader wrote:
Jim Sprague is the greatest high school water polo coach of all time. He is a saint. What he did for our community and the young men who played for him really showed today. Thanks Jim, you are one of a kind.