For some teams, winning comes easy. For others, victories can be as elusive as a winning lottery ticket.
For the Davis High boys water polo team, it's definitely the latter.
The Spartans have been on the ugly side of more blowout matches than they'd care to remember. But they've known all along they odds were against them.
This team, unlike some of its opponents, isn't comprised of club players or year-round athletes with realistic shots at college scholarship offers.
They're band members, pizza makers, former football players, teacher's assistants and pretty much anybody coach Toni Litke has been able to convince to jump in the pool. And, with few exceptions, they're new to water polo.
For instance, the team's leading scorer is Alan Wray — a junior who had been neither a swimmer nor water polo player before this year.
Goaltender Travis Blansit often needs to cut out of practice early to honor his band and bowling commitments.
Senior Cody Zeiger was Litke's teacher assistant until she recruited him to join the team.
"They're a real different lot," says Litke. "They found themselves together on a team and they've become a team" — albeit a team with limited skills, but boundless enthusiasm.
"I just kinda do it for fun," says senior Gregor Krzyminski. "It's fun to hang out with the guys in the pool and work hard as a team to get better."
This collection of characters has managed to form a cohesive unit that refuses to let a little thing like losing get them down.
"They're such an awesome group, and you just want it so bad for them because they work so hard," Litke said. "I tell them, 'You know, guys, we all know the records, but on any given day any high school team can win.' "
That day came for Davis last Thursday against Enochs when the Spartans jumped on the Eagles early and rolled to a 13-8 win, their first in eight Modesto Metro Conference games. Wray scored five goals in the win and Blansit had nine saves.
"It was pretty nice, after all the effort we put in, to finally win a game," Krzyminski said.
"It was kind of like a black cloud had been lifted, and their spirit was lifted," Litke said. "I think, in their heart of hearts, they believe they're gonna go out and win some more games. It was kind of like, 'Wow, we really can do this.' "
That they have a team at all is a victory in itself.
A week into the season, the Spartans had no coach and were in danger of having the plug pulled on their team.
Litke had stepped down after three years coaching the girls team to spend more time with her family. She stepped back in, this time as the boys' coach, after a long conversation with Davis principal Eric Corgiat — a former water polo standout at Davis.
"We had hired a new coach, but he got a promotion at his job with Gallo and no longer had the time to do it," Litke said. "Eric wasn't gonna let it go down and he told me, 'Toni, if you step in, I'll step in.' So I said, 'OK, I'll do it.'
"I didn't want to see the team go down, either."
Litke, an Oakdale native who swam on scholarship at the University of the Pacific before detouring to UC Santa Barbara to play water polo her junior year, knew right away that she had her work cut out.
"At the very first practice... I thought 'Wow, they're such poor swimmers; boy, do we have a lot of work to do.' "
Litke's first task was to convince her squad to become better swimmers. And it took some convincing.
"They were like, 'We just want to play, coach.' I thought, 'OK, I'm just gonna back off and give them some coaching and let them figure it out for themselves.' "
Their collective light bulbs came on at an early-season tournament.
"From then on they've been great. They can up and down the pool better and each week they're getting in better and better shape," said Litke.
One player who did have experience was Krzyminski. But he was dead-set against playing this season. That was before Litke went to work on him. A month later, he has emerged as a team leader and mentor to teammates.
"I love Gregor because he's hopeful and he's always giving direction to the kids that haven't played as much," Litke said. "I put them through a really hard practice on Wednesday. ... He looked around after we won and said, 'You know, you guys, our really hard practice last night ... we wouldn't have been able to do this two weeks ago. We had that (practice), got through it and look at today.' "
Now that they've won a match, Krzyminksi says practices have gotten more intense and his teammates are pushing themselves.
It takes a certain mental toughness for any competitor to lose game after game and keep on getting back into the ring, or pool in this case.
It also takes a unique coach, one with a thick skin and sense of humor, to keep the players engaged.
The Spartans have that. Litke's had a booming, infectious laugh that goes off like a firecracker with the slightest spark.
"She's always excited and optimistic about everything," Krzyminski said. "And she's always encouraging everyone. She's a pretty fun coach."
Litke says she inherited her sense of humor from her late father, Visco Grgich, one of the original members of the San Francisco 49ers and an institution at Oakdale High as a coach and teacher for three decades.
"He was just a psycho guy," she said. "There are so many crazy stories about my dad."
Litke's father taught her to enjoy life and soak in every experience. Win or lose. Now, she's passing that along to her team.
"I want them to do well, but, more than anything, I want them to have fun," Litke said. "Other coaches might look at me and think I'm crazy because for them it's all about winning. ... But I want them to enjoy themselves and have a positive high school experience."
There isn't a happier 1-7 team in any pool.