The Hilltop High School boys water polo team might have wished its 2011 playoff run had not ended when it did — in Saturday’s San Diego Section Division II quarterfinals — but the Lancers certainly have to have no regrets.
They left in it in the pool while chronicling a highly successful 19-10 season.
“All the game officials at our quarterfinal game came up and said ‘Wow!’” said HHS coach John Salts, whose team dropped a 14-11 decision to top-seeded Serra to end its season. “They kept telling us this was the best Hilltop team they had seen in a generation. I’m very proud of my guys. We played an incredible game.”
The Lancers received the No. 9 seed in this year’s divisional playoffs and entered post-season play as one of the hottest teams in the section with a 12-4 record in their final 16 games, including a 6-2 runner-up finish in Mesa League play.
Certainly, Salts’ squad made a case for a higher playoff seed. But, as with most South Bay programs, the operating rule appears be one of earning what one wants.
The 2011 Lancers did just that by advancing to the quarterfinals after defeating the eighth-seeded West Hills Wolf Pack, 18-9, in a first round playoff game Nov. 9 at Santana High School.
Hilltop clicked on all cylinders in taking leads of 5-2 after the first quarter and 9-4 at halftime.
West Hills (17-11-1) closed to within four goals, at 9-5, on Caleb Davies' goal to jump-start the second half. But that only served to inspire the Lancers, who broke off several lethal counter-attack goals to lead by eight goals — 15-7 — entering the final quarter.
It was perhaps the best game turned in by a Hilltop team since reaching the CIF semifinals in 1981, according to veteran observers.
Salts credited three facets of his team’s game plan to producing the memory-making victory: communication, movement and speed.
“We picked up the level of play,” the Lancer coach said. “We didn’t give up one counter-attack goal the whole game. We didn’t give up any goals from the hole (two-meter set position). What helped us the most was our communication and swimming speed. Our goalie was red hot.”
Every player in the water for Hilltop played his best game of the season.
The Lancers received goals from four different players in the first quarter. Rodrigo Perez scored twice while teammates Luis Ontiveros, Stuart Sokil and Gio Rude each scored once.
Perez and Sokil finished the game with five goals each while newcomer Nick Howard scored four goals. Ontiveros finished the game with two goals while Rude and Tanner Franklin each had one goal.
Sophomore Connor Kober started the game in the cage for Hilltop, drawing rave reviews for his outstanding play from Salts.
Zach Tong led the Wolf Pack with four goals while teammates Mark Saxer and Davies each scored twice and Dustin Daniels added one goal.
Serra defeated University City twice over the course of the season to earn the No. 1 seed in the Division II playoffs, followed by Valhalla as the division’s No. 3 seed and Mt. Carmel as the No. 4 seed.
All but Mt. Carmel advanced in Saturday’s quarterfinals.
UC defeated seventh-seeded Canyon Crest Academy, 9-6, while Valhalla eased past sixth-seeded La Costa Canyon, 13-11, and fifth-seeded Westview edged Mt. Carmel 6-5.
Serra (24-6) posted its victory over the Lancers in come-from-behind fashion.
Hilltop won the opening two sprints and scored goals off each one to lead 2-0 in the first minute of the game to silence the Conquistador’s cheering section. The Lancers finished the opening quarter with a 4-2 lead and were up by a goal, 6-5, at halftime.
Serra took a 10-8 lead into the final quarter. Salts said it was a case of no regrets on the part of this high achieving squad.
“I think the guys just got tired,” the HHS coach said. “The first half was an extremely physical and mental match for us. We came to play. Our mental game was at its highest. Everyone was on the same page. We were shutting down passing lanes. We were shutting down shooting lanes. Everyone was one the same page. It was what any coach could have wanted — four years of hard work coming together. It was incredible water polo on our part.”
Ontiveros and Howard led Hilltop with three goals each in the loss to Serra. Collin Stanley led the Conquistadors with six goals in the win.
Sokil and Perez led the Lancers in scoring this season, followed by Ontiveros.
Serra (25-6) will play the second-seeded University City Centurions (21-4) for the Division II championship title after topping fifth-seeded Westview, 12-8, in Wednesday’s semifinals. Stanley collected three goals for the Conquistadors. UC advanced to the division final with a 9-7 victory over third-seeded Valhalla.
Serra and University City will face off at the LJHS pool Saturday at 5 p.m. Both teams are making their first trip to the CIF championship game.
A five-goal burst pushed the Conquistadors ahead 9-3 with just over a minute left before halftime. Lance Lerum and Mario Medina each contributed two goals for Serra. Riley Bigelow keyed Westview (14-18) with four goals.
The Centurions moved out in front of Valhalla by a score of 8-3 before holding off a late rally by the Norsemen (15-14). Evan Aker paced UC with three goals while Francis Hoerman stood firm in the cage with 11 goalie saves. Jake James led Valhalla with four goals.