The wall of fog descended on the Coronado peninsula from the nearby Pacific Ocean almost precisely at 5 p.m. Thursday evening – a mere two hours before the Eastlake High School boys water polo team's scheduled San Diego Section Division I playoff game against Patrick Henry at Coronado High School.
Conditions for the opening round postseason contest favored low visibility and dampness, as might be expected by the presence of a 200-foot-high cloud deck resting on the ground.
But both teams appeared unfazed by the inclement weather along the coast – it was clear in Chula Vista until well after the game was over – and combined force to produce an exciting thrill-a-minute contest.
The seventh-seeded Patriots (17-10) will advance to meet second-seeded Vista (16-11) in Saturday's division quarterfinals at La Jolla High School, but the 10th-seeded Titans (15-11) can hang their heads high in the loss.
The six-time defending Mesa League champions took it on the chin, extending their playoff futility to 2-4 during that six-year stretch, but a statement was made. Patrick Henry fans greeted the Titans with rousing applause following the game after watching their team pushed to the very end. Respect was clearly theirs, even if a win wasn't.
“A close one,” EHS senior scoring leader Johnny Velazquez offered as he climbed out of the pool following the Titans narrow 9-8 setback.
There were no excuses. Yes, Eastlake had one apparent goal called back in the third quarter. But that wasn't the reason why the Titans sank beneath the fog. A 5-0 Patrick Henry halftime lead was the culprit.
EHS coach Austin Legg has called attention to his team's notorious slow starts this season, and this one proved indeed costly.
The Titans were clearly the better team in the final two quarters but, alas, a game is comprised of four quarters.
“Take away that first quarter and we win the game,” Legg said flatly.
The assessment by the EHS coach was as accurate as it was cold, which matched the poor weather conditions to a tee.
The Titans had plenty of opportunities to match the fast-starting Patriots but poor execution doomed their best intentions. Eastlake wasted two six-on-five man-up opportunities and also hit the post twice while at even-strength.
Patrick Henry capitalized on its chances to build a 4-0 cushion on the scoreboard in the early stages of the contest.
Though Eastlake stopped the blood-letting somewhat in the game's middle and latter stages, Patrick Henry was able to hold off the Titans' heroic comeback by the fabric of their Speedos.
“Offensively we made some adjustments in the second half,” Legg confessed. “We started shooting and that picked up our offense. It really helped that we won the sprint to start the second half and got a pair of quick goals.”
Eastlake united its defense and offense into a powerful weapon in the final two quarters to out-score the Patriots 8-4.
Jonathan Lopez scored on a six-on-five just 13 seconds into the third quarter and Velazquez tacked a lob shot with 1:15 elapsed in the second half to quickly trim the Patriot lead to 5-2.
Nate Niehaus then added a goal with 4:11 left in the quarter to further bite into the Patrick Henry lead as Eastlake closed to within 5-3 on the scoreboard.
The flurry of goals ignited the Titans' cheering section and vibrant chants of “East-lake! East-lake!” would echo along the pool deck throughout the rest of the game.
The Patriots got one goal back to lead 6-3 but Velazquez scored just 18 seconds later to make it a two-goal affair again at 6-4.
Velazquez appeared to score seconds into the fourth quarter on a foul shot but the goal was waved off due to “hesitation” on the part of the Titan shooter, according to the officiating crew.
No matter, Velazquez promptly scored his third goal of the game with 58 seconds gone in the quarter to edge the Chula Vista squad ever closer at 6-5.
It took another 3:08 for Eastlake to tie the score at eight.
After a five-meter penalty shot by Zack Stillwater pushed the Patriots ahead 7-5, Niehaus powered in a deflected shot off the Patrick Henry goalie to make the score 7-6.
The Patriots would go up 8-6 before Velazquez and Niehaus (on another deflected shot) leveled the teams on the scoreboard with 3:18 to play in regulation.
By this time, the Titans had noticeably begun to wear down a bit due to their torrid goal-scoring pace and a poor pass along the perimeter led to what proved to be the game-winning goal by Nick Alger on a breakaway with 2:26 to play.
EHS goalie Ricky Gonzalez played superb down the final two frantic minutes to keep his team within striking distance but the Titans simply could not produce the quality shot they needed to send the game into overtime.
Kyle Schauer, despite being tightly defended, took Eastlake's final shot. The ball skimmed just inches wide of the far post, hitting the floats that marked out-of-bounds with 0.65 second left.
Game over. Season over for the Titans.
“That was a rough game,” Legg assessed afterward. “But we're only losing three seniors, so the future looks bright.”
Velazquez led Eastlake with four goals while Niehaus scored three times.
Stillwater keyed Patrick Henry with four goals.
There was one other upset in Thursday's four Division I playoff openers as ninth-seeded San Pasqual (16-14) slipped past eighth-seeded Grossmont (20-10) by a score of 12-8. Sixth-seeded Granite Hills (18-10) also had a close call after edging 11th-seeded Fallbrook (14-16) by a tight 12-11 score.
In the other game, fifth-seeded Rancho Buena Vista (20-9) nudged past 12th-seeded Helix (14-14) by a score of 11-9 in another closely-fought playoff contest.