In a perfect lead-in to the CIF-SS playoffs, the top two teams in Division 2 boys water polo poll battled down to the wire in the Channel League Tournament championship game.
Clinging to a one-goal advantage, goalie Sam Rich and the San Marcos defense came up big in the final minute and escaped with a thrilling 10-9 victory over top-ranked Ventura on Thursday at the Santa Barbara High pool.
The league title is the first for San Marcos since 2015 and the first for coach Peera Sukavivatanachai, who took over the program in 2018.
“I’m super excited. It’s very special,” said the Royals’ coach. “I feel like I’ve been grinding and working for the last five-six years, and to see it all come together is something special.”
And to win a championship with such a young squad (the team has only two seniors), makes it extra special for No. 2-ranked San Marcos (19-11).
Sophomore Will Stuart led six San Marcos scorers with three goals, including the eventual game winner with 4:51 left in the fourth period. He got inside his defender and finished a pass from Jake Magid for a 10-8 lead.
Magid and Nic Prentice each scored two goals.
Sukavivatanachai called the win a collective effort, which has been a trademark of the San Marcos team this season.
“I’m really proud of Nic Prentice and Luke Burns, they were our big leaders in the water today. Matteo (Obando) did great. It was really a collective effort, and I’m so proud of my guys for that.”
Merrick Giles scored three goals and Cole Loomis and Owen Fonua each had two for Ventura (20-8), which went undefeated during the regular league season, including a 9-8 win over San Marcos.
Rich was a massive factor for the Royals in the tournament final. He finished with 14 saves, with four of those stops coming in the last 1:20 of the fourth period. He made a remarkable save against Fonua, reaching high with his left hand to tip away a shot headed for the upper left corner.
Rich made consecutive blocks against Loomis and Evan Augusta with 20 seconds left to prevent the Cougars from tying the score.
“He was critical for us. With the way we play defense, we rely heavily on him. So I’m really glad he stepped up today,” said Sukavivatanachai of his junior goalie.
“It got a little risky toward the end there,” said the 6-foot Rich, who played like he was 6-5.
He credited the play of his defenders, who got their hands on several Ventura shots.
“Sometimes (the offensive players) will get past them and I have to make a quick block. But, yeah, the defense was great.”
The defense came to the rescue in a near disastrous final seconds for San Marcos. The Royals had possession deep in their end but they turned it over for not putting the ball in play quick enough.
Ventura threw the ball across the pool but the pass was intercepted by Stuart, and he held on to it as the clock ran out.
“I felt my heart skip a beat there,” said Sukavivatanachai of the crazy final seconds.
San Marcos got off to great start, scoring four unanswered goals.
Burns blocked a shot on a Ventura power play and the Royals scored at the other end as Matteo Obando converted on a power play for the first goal.
Prentice got inside the Ventura defense and scored the second goal and Burns made it 3-0, finishing a pass from Magid on a power play.
After the San Marcos defense forced Ventura to throw the ball away, Stuart gave the Royals a 4-0 lead off an assist from Prentice.
Ventura roared back in the second period, getting single goals from Loomis and Ian Moore and two from Giles to tie the score at 4-4.
Sukavivatanachai said he told his players to stay patient while Ventura was making its run. “Just keep playing our game, buy in to the system and keep playing our system.”
Rich expected Ventura to come back.
“I knew we would probably drop off a little bit and it would get close. I was expecting a close game the whole time.”
After Giles got inside the defense and scored the tying goal for the Cougars, San Marcos responded with huge goal from Hudson McLeod to take the lead for good.
Rich made another block and Prentice followed with a skillful maneuver around a defender for a goal and a 6-4 lead at halftime.
The Royals extended their lead to 7-4 early in the third period as Stuart took a pass from Magid and beat the Ventura goalie with a quick shot.
“He’s super long, he’s super strong and he’s young,” said Sukavivatanchai of Stuart. “He’ll make some mistake but he’s got a lot of resiliency. We’re super excited for him in the next two years.”
Ventura pulled to 9-8 late in the third period on a goal by Giles.
The Cougars couldn’t find an equalizer as they were denied by the defense of Stuart and McLeod early in the fourth.
Stuart got inside water and scored to give the Royals a 10-8 advantage with 4:51 to go.
A quick shot by Augusta made it a 10-9 game with 2:06 left.
Rich and the San Marcos defense took charge the rest of the way. And the Royals celebrated their first Channel League championship in eight years.
In the third-place game, Dos Pueblos defeated Buena 9-4. Jaden Moore, Ben Fuhrer, Aden Bishop and Lucas Neushul each scored two goals for the Chargers.
Rio Mesa edged Santa Barbara, 11-10, in the fifth-place game. Jack Drown scored four goals and Calvin Nelley, West Graham and Shane Davis each had two goals for the Dons.
San Marcos, Ventura and Dos Pueblos all advance to the CIF Division 2 playoffs and will learn their playoff draw on Saturday.