The Mater Dei Catholic Crusaders boys water polo team appears to have the Eastlake Titans figured out. Now, if only the rest of the Titans’ Mesa League opponents could do the same, it might make things very interesting indeed.
The Titans secured the rights to their sixth consecutive Mesa League championship by edging the Crusaders, 9-8, Wednesday afternoon in a game that was left in doubt until the final 14 seconds.
Eastlake defeated Mater Dei Catholic by the same score in the teams’ first league meeting on Oct. 18.
“They played us like a team should,” first-year EHS head coach Austin Legg said after Wednesday’s thriller. “They forced us to shoot the ball and did a good job of shot blocking. That and a lot of defense on our part is what won it for us today. Our boys played as hard as they possibly could. They played smart.
“We started out slow but we picked it up, we felt the pressure and responded. Mater Dei is a great team. They play a physical game and know now to get inside (water) on opponents.”
The Crusaders swam to an early 3-0 lead in Wednesday’s spotlight contest and held a 3-2 advantage until Eastlake’s Johnny Velazquez scored on a five-meter penalty shot to tie the score three-all. Titan teammate Kyle Schauer then followed with a goal as the visitors took a 4-3 lead midway through the second quarter.
The teams then exchanged goals over the last 3:11 of the second quarter as Eastlake (7-0 in league) took a 5-4 advantage into halftime. Sam Rieta scored a man-up goal to tie the score at four. However, Schauer fed a pass to Velazquez, who then skipped a shot into the far corner with 1:08 left in the quarter for the lead.
The game was tied three times in the second half.
Jon Alcaraz leveled the game at 5-5 on a goal to start the third quarter. But the Titans promptly moved the ball down court to inch ahead, 6-5, just seconds later.
The same scenario happened again as MDC’s Andy Rios (yes, that Andy Rios of 2009 Park View Little League World Series championship fame) scored to draw his team into a 6-6 deadlock. But again, Eastlake moved in front by a goal, 7-6, just seconds later as Velazquez scored his third goal of the match.
The Titans (14-10 overall) took their first two-goal lead of the game as Sal Gomez notched a man-up goal with just nine seconds to play in the third quarter.
The hosts, who dropped to 4-3 in league play, had the better of the action in the final quarter but could not quite solve EHS goalie Ricky Gonzalez or the defense that played heroically in front of him.
Claudio Quiroz made it 8-7 by scoring the opening goal of the fourth quarter. Rios then scored his third goal of the game on a penalty shot with 3:04 remaining in regulation time.
Gonzalez was left with little choice but to jump on a loose ball that dropped into the open water in front of him; when he handled the ball with both hands, the Titans were whistled for the penalty shot.
Eastlake nearly scored on a man-up opportunity with 1:39 to play but Crusader goalie Collin Vering managed to keep the ball from completely crossing the goal line on a shot by Schauer through a maze of arms.
Nate Niehaus, who scored nine goals in an earlier game against Bonita Vista, came back with another shot and this time managed to find corner twine with 1:08 left to give the visitors a hard-earned 9-8 edge.
Game over? Hardly in this gem of a championship contest.
The momentum swung right back to the hosts atfer they received a man-up power play chance just seconds later. A pair of field blocks by Titan defenders on point-blanks shots preserved the lead, however. Eastlake regained possession after another sustained Mater Dei Catholic offensive attack and finally managed to run out the clock.
Legg was the first to breathe a sigh of relief — a big one.
“This was just like the last game we had with them,” he said.
The Titans have now extended their championship run into a new era under Legg, who had been an assistant coach under former head coach Chris Barrick for the last several seasons before taking over the full coaching reins this season.
“It’s been an expectation that we were going to win league,” said Legg, an EHS alumnus. “Our goal was to have that home CIF game that goes with winning a league championship. If you have that home CIF game, anything can happen.”
The section seeding committee meeting is Monday when 12 teams in each of three enrollment divisions will be placed into single-elimination brackets. Eastlake will compete in the Division I enrollment tier; Mater Dei Catholic will be out to grab an at-large berth in the Division III enrollment tier.
Other playoff hopefuls include Bonita Vista and Otay Ranch in Division I and Hilltop in Division II. Mar Vista (22-5 overall, 9-0 in league) will compete in the Division III tier as the South Bay League champion.
Gomez and Niehaus each scored two goals in Wednesday’s game for the Titans while Kyle De Alva was credited with one goal and Gonzalez was credited with four goalie saves.
Alcaraz scored twice for MDC while Ben Mullendore also tacked on one goal. Vering was credited with 10 goalie saves.
Eastlake defeated Hilltop (10-6 on Oct. 29) and Otay Ranch (15-4 last Friday) in its previous two league games.