LA VERNE – There’s something in the water at Damien High School. Spartans coach Andrew Gates seems to reload his water polo and swimming teams each season, and this year is no different. “Its a lot more fun to be the guy people turn to,” he said. His success doesn’t all come naturally. The six days a week he spends swimming at the Novaquatics Club in Irvine has paid large dividends. Verdegem was part of a 4×100 freestyle relay that finished ninth in the nation in 2005. Brian Gardiner, another co-captain, is coming off a big year for the Spartans’ water polo team. The MIT-bound senior said practice is a lot less fun for swimming, but that “at the end of the season, you know all your hard work has paid off.” Gardiner specializes in the 100-meter breaststroke and has his eyes set on a time of one minute. “Swimming is a much more individual sport than water polo, but when you win a meet, it’s very much a combined effort,” Gardiner said. Gates couldn’t be more appreciative of the character and work ethic Gardiner has brought to both of his programs. “If I had a whole team of Gardiners, I’d rule the world,” Gates said. “He is a great kid and is every coach’s dream because he’s so respectful and is a great leader.” Junior Ryan Evans was a CIF-SS Division I finalist in the 200 medley relay in 2005 and 2006. Evans also was the league runner-up in the 100 butterfly and an All-American in the 200 medley relay last year. “Ryan is a great kid and keeps practices light,” Gates said. “He will be a swim team captain next season.” “I am taking swimming much more seriously this year,” Evans said. “After watching Alex, it’s made me want to step it up because he is at a level I want to get to.” Sophomore Aaron Woods is “the future of Damien swimming,” Gates said, and makes up the fourth leg of the Spartans’ 200 medley relay. Woods was a CIF qualifier as a freshman in the 100 backstroke and the 200 medley relay. He finished third in the league in the 200 individual medley and the 100 back. “Alex (Verdegem) is at the level I want to be at, and I really admire his work ethic and hope to swim like he does,” Woods said. He has been swimming at the Claremont Club since he was 8-years old and enjoys the team aspect of what primarily is an individual sport. “We have so many people who contribute to this team, and I just want to do my part in keeping Damien on top,” he said. Woods gave his coach much of the credit for the constant success the Spartans have enjoyed. “Coach Gates is the best high school coach around,” Woods said. “He is a great motivator and helps us reach our goals.” Woods feels team chemistry has played a major role in Damien’s continual standing atop league. The sophomore said he agrees with his teammates that practice is anything but fun. “I don’t enjoy practice at all,” he said, “but it gets us to where we want to be.” 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! Damien has won Sierra League titles in each of Gates’ eight years at the school and 10 in a row. Alex Verdegem leads a cast of talented Spartans in a year in which expectations are extremely high. The senior captain will attend Princeton next year, but currently has his focus on finishing his career at Damien in style. Verdegem, the 2006 Tribune swimmer of the year, is considered “one of the top three or four sprinters in the state, with the 50-meter freestyle as his specialty,” Gates said. He is an All-American in four events. “I have shifted my goals to a bigger scale,” Verdegem said. “I want to be the fastest in the 50 freestyle in (CIF) Division II and one the fastest in the country. My best is 21.0 and I want to do it in 20.2.” Verdegem, who was more of a role player on Gates’ water polo team that lost in the CIF-Southern Section Division III playoffs semifinals, enjoys playing a more prominent role with the swim team.