WESTPORT -- When Charlie Gulotta began his second coaching stint with Staples' boys water polo program last month, he set out to make improvements.
Over time, Gulotta has focused on a number of areas where he's felt the Wreckers could use some refining, singling out the team's 20-second extra-man drill and player stamina.
"The boys have progressively been getting better. Actually, we've had a lot of feedback from officials and other teams that we've improved," he said at a recent practice.
A formidable schedule and the loss of five starters from a year ago have made this season a challenging one at times for Staples, but the players have managed to squash some of the issues of the past.
"We had a little trouble finding the killer mentality, winning mentality sometimes because in the past, we've been a little less serious and (less) focused on winning," senior captain Robert DeLuca said. "That focus has kind of been renewed this year."
With the program in its fifth season, the Wreckers have had more pool time than past years, practices are more intense and the players aren't taking kindly to the thought of losing.
"I hate to lose more than I love to win," senior captain Angus Armstrong said. "When you lose a close game, it's really tough. I don't like it. When we've lost close games in the past, it hasn't sat well with me. So I tried to make it a big emphasis this year."
On paper, the results have been mixed as Staples -- a 7-9 team a season ago -- came into last week with just four wins. But both captains are careful to note that the team's play has been a lot more impressive than its record might indicate.
"We've had a lot of guys step up. We've had a lot of close games against teams that have been traditional rivals," DeLuca said. "It kind of indicates we've maintained, if not improved our level of play, which is good."
"I think that we've performed pretty adequately," Armstrong added. "I think if a pass had been made here or there, we'd probably have a winning record. I think we've had a pretty successful year."
With the roster changing after players graduated, the returnees knew that putting together a successful run wouldn't be easy. But the Wreckers have gotten strong play at a number of positions, including in goal from seniors Rory Siegel and Ryan Moran.
"They are great. They really keep us in the game," Gulotta said.
Gulotta, who previously coached Staples in the 2009 season, said the team has made "significant progress" in pushing the ball up on offense.
"That's part of teamwork where you understand your position in the field of play. ... To break up the field, you need someone to get the ball from the goalie and feed it up to the forward line, and give them a chance to set up," he said.
The Wreckers are aiming to finish the season strong and are preparing for a potential rematch with rival Hopkins at the Hopkins Tournament in New Haven on Nov. 10. The teams have split their previous two meetings this year, with Hopkins taking the most recent matchup on Oct. 13 in triple overtime.
"We had like five extra-man opportunities and we just couldn't execute on that," Gulotta said of the loss to Hopkins. "It's like a power play in hockey. ... That's what really hurt us in that Hopkins game."
The Wreckers admit that they've yet to master the 6-on-5 extra-man situations and still have more work to do. But they know they've made progress in a lot of other areas, even if the results sometimes don't show.
"We knew with losing most of our starting lineup, it was going to be a tough year coming in," DeLuca said. "I think that kind of mentally prepared some of us to really want to go for it, to prove that we had the capacity to take on the mantel."
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