The Channel League boys water polo tournament final between crosstown rivals Santa Barbara and San Marcos high school showed they are ready for next week’s CIF-Southern Section playoffs.
In an intense battle, the Dons withstood the pressing defense of the Royals and won 13-10 to claim the league championship on Wednesday at the SBHS pool.
The teams will learn their playoff draws on Saturday morning. Santa Barbara will compete in Division 1 and San Marcos in Division 2.
Dos Pueblos, which won the third-place game against Santa Ynez, 13-6, will be in the Division 1 bracket.
Ryan Drake poured in 10 goals, five on penalty shots, to power Santa Barbara to its second win over the Royals this season.
Many of the major fouls were created by the speed of driver Sean O’Brien and the play of the Dons’ centers.
“We were able to draw a lot of exclusions mostly on our drives, like we’ve done before,” Santa Barbara coach Mark Walsh said. “Sean O’Brien is a tough matchup; he’s just really, really quick, so he drew a lot. And then our two-meter players did a good job today.”
San Marcos coach Peera Sukavivatanachai gave kudos to Santa Barbara for their speed and quick ball movement in drawing the major fouls.
“They did a great job of just catching our defenders off guard and taking ball-side and other-side water,” Sukavivatanachai said.
The Dons scored their first goal on a penalty shot by Drake, who added another goal 22 seconds later for a 2-0 lead.
But unlike the first meeting, when Santa Barbara used its fast counter attack to open up a big lead, San Marcos played tighter defense and stayed in the game.
“We had a lot to learn from the first time playing them, and I think our guys did an excellent job adjusting to it,” Sukavivatanachai said. “That early-game penalty caught us off guard, but we kind of shut down that momentum for the rest of the quarter.”
Charlie Franzen scored a pair of goals and Jack Cunnison finished an outside shot to tie the score at 3-3.
Drake answered as he a spun around a defender in the center position and scored to give the Dons a 4-3 lead at the end of the quarter.
Drake scored consecutive goals — the first off an assist from O’Brien and the second on a penalty shot after Neeno McDonald drew the major foul — to put the Dons up 7-4 in the second period.
San Marcos kept fighting and got a goal from Keegan Stewart from the perimeter to make it 7-5 at halftime.
The Dons again went up by three in the third period (10-7), but a long-distance goal from Hank Jessup kept the Royals close entering the final period.
Stewart drew a penalty for San Marcos, and Nic Prentice converted to bring San Marcos to 11-9 with 4:05 to go.
Santa Barbara’s Griffin Pieretti made two big defensive plays to spoil a Royals’ comeback. On the first one, he stole the ball, drove down the pool and drew a penalty and the third ejection of a San Marcos player. Drake converted the penalty shot.
Pieretti made another steal and fired a shot off the post. The Dons were able to retain possession, and O’Brien scored for a 13-9 advantage with 1:55 left.
“He’s insanely quick,” Walsh said of Pieretti. “I’ve never seen a guy be on one side of (an opposing player) and then literally be on the other side of him in like less than a second. He’s just that quick in moving around, so he gets a lot of steals and those lead to a lot of counter attacks.”
Based on the latest CIF-SS rankings, Walsh anticipates the Dons receiving a top-four seed in the Division 1 bracket after the CIF playoff committee places the top eight-ranked teams in an Open Division.
“The latest poll they had us tied for 10th. So, yeah, we’ll probably be like a top-four seed, which would surely be a good spot to be,” Walsh said. “There’s just so many good teams, so you don’t want to play one of those really good ones in that first round.
“With a higher finish, in theory, your first-round game could be easier. But, really, in that division everybody’s good enough to beat you.
“San Marcos gave us everything we can handle and they’re in Division 2, so I know there are teams in Division 1 that can all play with us.”
Despite the loss on Wednesday, Sukavivatanachai liked the way his team played and is looking for more of the same in the playoffs.
“Hopefully, we can share this momentum going into next week,” he said. “These guys are super excited about that game.”
— Noozhawk sports editor Barry Punzal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.