The final week of regular season play couldn’t have been better scripted for the CIF-Metro Conference’s complement of South County roller hockey teams, with championship titles in both the Mesa League and South Bay League up for grabs.
The Southwest Raiders defeated the Mar Vista Mariners, 9-1, on Jan. 31 to take a one-game lead in the South Bay League standings as both teams gear up for their climactic showdown on Thursday, Feb. 16, at Skate San Diego in National City. Should the Raiders capture the teams’ four-game season series three-games-to-one, they will reign as undisputed league champions — a history-making occasion in the school’s 12-year involvement with the sport.
If the Mariners should prevail on Thursday, barring an upset loss by either team earlier in the week, they would tie Southwest for this year’s league title and repeat as league champions, albeit in shared fashion.
The Raiders are having a remarkable season, a history-making season, in fact. It’s hard for long-time observers who have watched their games this season not to get choked up a little with emotion. Southwest coach Jerry Nestlerode’s players have bought whole-heartedly into a system — perhaps the only system that could work for a team without the talent base of teams like Eastlake, Hilltop or Otay Ranch — and played it to near perfection.
The result has been, to date, a school record 14 wins, a 13-1 league record and 14-3 overall mark.
Teams play 20 regular season games each; South Bay League teams each play 16 league games.
Mar Vista, meanwhile, has battled through some adversity to put itself in position to make a last grab at the league title. The Mariners have played the majority of the season with a skeleton crew, often with just one player on the bench available for substitution. The Imperial Beach team racked up a hard-fought 4-3 victory against the Raiders on Jan. 12 to tie Southwest for the league lead after the Raiders had captured the teams’ first-round encounter by a 6-2 score.
Nestlerode admitted Southwest’s 9-1 win in the teams’ latest encounter was a bit deceiving.
“It was much closer than the final score might indicate,” the Raiders bench boss said. “Mar Vista didn’t play as good as they are capable of playing, and we had some things go right for us in the game.”
Southwest did receive some of the proverbial “bounces” of the puck at key points of the high impact contest, but the Raiders also clearly earned the win with smart play throughout the game.
Nestlerode’s crew likely put its best game together in school history that afternoon. The Southwest coach, in his post-game talk, said he looked hard for mistakes committed by his team and, in his words, said he “couldn’t find many.”
Sophomore Angel Rocha and senior Steven Regaliza led the Raiders with four goals each.
This is Rocha’s second year on the team and he has clearly become a scoring threat the second half of this season along with his continued strong defensive play. He has also played football and volleyball at Southwest but labels roller hockey as his best sport.
“I knew how to skate and thought I could use that to may advantage by playing this sport — all I really had to learn was how to stick-handle,” he said.
Rocha’s inaugural season with the Raiders was not packed with glory. Southwest finished 2-18 overall, with a last place finish in the South Bay League standings at 1-11.
“Even though we won only two games last season, I was still proud to represent my school,” Rocha said.
Rocha enters the final week of regular season play with 27 goals and six assists for 33 points — 10 points behind team leader Martin Whitfield (27 goals, 43 points).
Other team scoring leaders include Regaliza (15 goals, 17 points), Angel Alamillo (five goals, 14 points), Alejandro Martinez (five goals, 13 points), C.J. Baiza (three goal, 11 points) and Carlos Ochoa (four goals, 10 points).
Because there are two players on the team whose first name is Angel, Nestlerode gave Rocha the nickname “Troy” in tribute to Troy Polamalu of the NFL Pittsburgh Steelers, both of whom have flowing dreadlocks.
While the teams’ scoring is up this season, the play of senior goalie Sean Garcia has proven scintillating at times. Certainly, he played his best during the 9-1 win over Mar Vista. It was his ability to shut down CIF-Metro Conference leading scorer Hunter Calef that caused the final score to be so deceivingly lop-sided.
Calef enters the week with 76 goals and 91 points to lead all if the conference’s South County players. He appears to be in a race with Poway freshman Eric Wright for the overall conference scoring championship this season.
Calef has been the primary scoring threat for the Mariners this season and shutting him down has proven a difficult task for any team in the league.
Andrew Medlock ranks second in MVHS team scoring with 37 goals and 55 points, followed by Jacob David and Jordan Robinette, each with 15 goals and 35 points.
While Southwest and Mar Vista have clearly established themselves as the top two teams in the South Bay League this season, this is not to say that anyone is unbeatable.
Following Southwest’s 9-1 victory against the Mariners, the Raiders received an upset scare from Chula Vista in a game played Feb. 2. Led by the constant breakaway threat from Tre Rogers, another top individual talent in the league, the Spartans fought the favored Raiders to a 2-2 standoff for the majority of the contest.
Martinez scored what proved to be the game-winning goal with five minutes left in the third period. It took a lot of defense — and some solid goaltending from Garcia — to stave off what could have been a disastrous loss in the team’s championship race with Mar Vista.
The game proved that effort and commitment makes up for a lot of talent disparity. “My team decided it wanted to win this game,” CVHS coach Eric Sharp said.
Rocha scored twice for Southwest while Rogers and teammate Librado Fierro split scoring honors for the Spartans, who trailed by a 2-0 score through the opening two periods before tying up the game with the opening two goals of the third period.
Mar Vista, meanwhile, had to stave off a resilient Sweetwater team by a 6-5 score on Tuesday to remain in the championship race.
Calef kept the Mariners afloat with five goals while David scored once. The game was tied 4-4 with 10:16 left in the third period. Calef scored both his team’s final two goals.
Southwest defeated Sweetwater, 8-2, on Thursday to record its latest victory.
The Raiders’ scoring was balanced, with four players notching goals and five gathering points. David Castellow was credited with three goals and one assist while Rocha collected two goals and one assist, Regaliza scored twice, Whitfield scored once and Alamillo was credited with one assist.
Earlier that same day, Mar Vista skated past a vastly improved Castle Park team, 11-8, to move to 12-2 in league play, 13-4 overall.
Calef once again was the catalyst with seven goals while Robinette earned playmaker honors with a goal and four assists. Medlock also was credited with two goals.
Castle Park narrowed the score to 9-8 with 2:44 left in the game before Calef decided the issue with the game’s final two goals.
This coming Thursday’s Southwest-Mar Vista game (4:30 p.m. face-off) has to be considered the highest profile game ever played between the two schools, which annually battle for a multi-colored puck as part of the school’s south side neighborhood rivalry.
Call it the Battle for the Bell on wheels.
Mesa League: Clash of the Titans
The Hilltop Lancers and Otay Ranch Mustangs finished the opening round of Mesa League play tied for the lead in the modest four-team circuit thanks to an upset victory administered by the Eastlake Titans (against Otay Ranch). The Lancers and Mustangs enter the final week of regular season play tied once again at the top following another upset win by the Titans (this time administered Wednesday against Hilltop).
Depending on the outcome of leagues games Monday and Wednesday, either Hilltop or Otay Ranch will rule alone at the top or there could possibly be co-championship or even tri-championship.
Hilltop and Otay Ranch meet head-on Monday at 4:30 p.m., with the winner taking over sole possession of the league lead. Eastlake and Otay Ranch meet on Webnesday, with yet another "upset" victory by the Titans poised to scramble the final order of finish.
The Mesa League champion receives an automatic bid to the Don Cerone Memoria/lKiwanis Cup championship playoffs that face off the following week.
Hilltop appeared to be in control of its own destiny after recording smartly-played victories against Eastlake (5-3 on Jan. 25) and Otay Ranch (6-3 on Jan. 30). Lancer coach Dan Vaccaro was enthused about his team's chances of skating back from a 10-5 loss to the Mustangs in the first round of league play to capture the league championship.
"Those games showed that Hilltop can play strong defense and win," the HHS coach noted.
The Titans took a page out of the Lancers' play book on Wednesday by playing what EHS coach Ron Cole called "smart and motivated" hockey.
The result was a 5-3 decision that mimicked the Titans' 4-3 upset win over Otay Ranch on Jan. 18.
Eastlake never trailed in Wednesday's third-round match-up against Hilltop (the Lancers captured the teams' first-round contest by a 5-1 score on Jan. 9).
Mike Mechling, assisted by fellow freshman Aaron Meyer, staked the Titans to a 1-0 lead just 1:49 into the contest. Hilltop tied the game at a goal apiece midway through the opening period as Alphonso Arrguin (goal) and George Godinez (assist) teamed up for the score.
Eastlake would end the first period with a pivotal 3-1 lead thanks to two additional goals by Mechling, both assisted by Meyer.
The Titans retained their two-goal lead following a scoreless second period to set up a tense third-period showdown between the teams.
Hilltop appeared to seize the momentum -- and a leg up on the league title -- with unanswered goals to tie the score. Godinez scored an unassisted goal with 1:41 elapsed in the period to narrow the EHS lead to 3-2. Arrequin, assisted by team captain Jeremiah Schultz, evened the game at three-all with 9:09 left.
Schultz, however, was called for a body-checking penalty with 7:22 remaining in the game and the Titans took advantage of the extra skater by scoring a power play goal at the 5:52 mark. Aric Alvarez got the go-ahead goal, assisted by Mechling, who collected his fourth point of the game.
Eastlake held onto its tenuous one-goal lead despite constant heavy offensive pressure by the Lancers. While Titan goaltender Darius Newhall rarely had to make any spectacular saves in the opening two periods because of the play of teammates (both defenders and forwards coming back to play defense), the senior netminder had to turn in several heroic stops in the final period, particularly in its latter stages.
Meyer, who entered the game as the Titans' leading scorer on the season, made the upstart EHS victory hold up after scoring a much-needed insurance goal with 1:17 left on the score clock.
Meyer, who was all business during the game, finally let a smile break out acrosss his face when returning to the center face-off circle.
Mechling turned in a breakout game with three goals and one assist while Meyer, another member of the team's mighty "freshman line," finished the contest with a goal and three assists.
Arrguin led the Lancers with a pair of goals.
In Wednesday's other league game, Otay Ranch torpedoed Bonita Vista, 17-1, behind eight goals and three assists by freshman sensation Devyn Taras. Cole Beatie contributed a goal and five assists while Jorye Parisi and Matt Mendez each collected two goals and one assist.
Mesa League Standings
Hilltop Lancers 5-2 in league, 8-9 overall
Otay Ranch Mustangs 5-2 in league, 7-10 overall
Eastlake Titans 4-3 in league, 6-11 overall
Bonita Vista Barons 0-7 in league, 2-15 overall
South Bay League Standings
Southwest Raiders 13-1 in league, 14-3 overall
Mar Vista Mariners 12-2 in league, 13-4 overall
Chula Vista Spartans 4-10 in league, 5-13 overall
Castle Park Trojans 4-11 in league, 5-14 overall
Sweetwater Red Devils 3-13 in league, 5-14 overall