It was the first round of the CIF-SS Division 1 boys water polo playoffs, a place Santa Barbara High hadn’t been in five years.
The Dons played up to the higher competition. They scored the first four goals Wednesday against Dana Hills and posted a 15-7 victory at the Santa Barbara pool.
Santa Barbara (20-12) advances to a quarterfinal game at Mira Costa on Saturday.
Dana Hills had trouble keeping pace with Santa Barbara’s speedy counterattack and quick ball movement.
Ryan Drake scored the Dons’ first goal — the first of his team-high six — after the team drew an ejection. Griffin Pieretti fired in a pair two goals and Jack Taylor finished one for a 4-0 lead at 3:48 of the opening period.
The Dolphins scored on a power play with to make a 4-1 game at the end of the first quarter.
Santa Barbara dominated the second period and opened up 7-2 advantage. The outburst started with Sean O’Brien driving to the goal and drawing a penalty, and Drake finishing the penalty shot.
Goalie Wyatt Pieretti started a counter attack with a long pass to Drake who was joined by Neeno McDonald on a two-on-two break. Drake looked over at McDonald before burying a shot inside the near post for a 6-1 lead.
Pieretti was making his return to the lineup after missing about three weeks with an injured thumb. He made seven saves and showed no signs of rust.
“He made a couple saves yesterday in practice and it was like, ‘Oh, wow, I totally forgot what he can get to,’” said Walsh of his senior goalie. “It would have been a goal on 98 percent of the goalies out there. Oh, yeah, I forgot how good he was.”
Walsh noted that in Pieretti’s absence, the team improved on defense. That was evident against Dana Hills.
The Dolphins had size, but the Dons’ ability to close down and double team the ball frustrated the opponents.
“As bad as it was he got hurt and missed all those games, our defense got so much better because he was out,” said Walsh.
He called Pieretti’s absence a “silver lining” for the team as the improved defense will be a huge factor in the playoffs.
“For every game we play, that’ll pay a dividend for us.”
The Dons showed some impressive outside shooting in the second half. O’Brien and Drake both buried a couple of long-range shots. Drake reacted after one his bombs, pumping his fist and nodding his head with satisfaction.
Walsh is pumped his Dons are back playing in the Division 1 playoffs.
“I’m excited the program is back to a top-10 ranking this year for all divisions, which is a huge accomplishment for us,” he said. “We knew we had a good senior class and I’m just glad to see them put it together this season and kind of show everyone what we’re capable of doing.
“Winning D1 playoff games do not come easy.”
— Noozhawk sports editor Barry Punzal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.