The youth-laden Otay Ranch Mustangs saved their best for last, and it was good enough to set up a tri-championship to cap the 2013-13 Mesa League girls water polo season.
Tuesday’s defensive-minded 4-1 victory against the Eastlake Titans before a packed deck at Mater Dei High School left Otay Ranch, Eastlake and the Hilltop Lancers all tied with two league losses.
“We worked hard for this all season,” returning Mesa League Player of the Year Sarah Medina said. “It was our last game. We wanted it to count.”
The Mustangs will be the Metro Conference’s designated representative in the upcoming San Diego Section playoffs based on tiebreaker criteria (goal-differential). Eastlake and Hilltop will seek to qualify as at-large entries for post-season competition.
The section playoffs start next Wednesday (Division I and Division III) and Thursday (Division II).
“Taking novice girls and making them a champion was a challenge,” ORHS coach Ernie Medina admitted. “But we did it.”
Few thought it possible at the beginning of the season. The younger Medina was the Mustangs’ lone returning starter. Goalie Emma Cornwell, who set a school record for single-season saves, played at the novice level last season.
It was apparent watching Tuesday’s showcase game that the young Otay Ranch squad had matured over the course of the season. The Mustangs played like a veteran team, playing to their strengths and seemingly making all the right decisions.
The game meant everything to both teams. An Eastlake victory would have given the Titans outright possession of this year’s league title — and an automatic bid to the CIF playoffs.
“We took a lot of shots and we have to be happy with that,” EHS coach Jorge Ortega said. “They took our strengths away. It was one of those games that didn’t come together for us offensively. We did play well defensively. But if you can’t score, you can’t win.”
Ironically, the Titans scored the opening goal of the game but were held scoreless for the balance of the remaining three quarters. Natsumi Watanabe gave Eastlake a 1-0 lead. But Cailin Lechner evened the score midway through the first quarter.
The goal was the first of two in the game for Lechner, who beat Titan goalie Haley Derrod on a restart early in the second quarter. Sarah Medina managed to float in a lob shot just before halftime to put the Mustangs ahead 3-1.
Camy Benitez scored the most impressive — and unexpected — goal of the match when she let go a half-court lob shot that Derrod got a finger on but couldn’t push wide of the top corner of the cage.
The 4-1 margin proved enough for Otay Ranch, which had a chance to add a fifth goal in the early seconds of the fourth quarter when Sarah Medina was awarded a five-meter penalty shot. However, Medina rocked her shot off the framework.
Cornwell was credited with 15 saves, though many Eastlake shots went wide of the mark.
While Medina, who entered the game with more than 130 regular season goals to her credit, was held to one goal and one assist. She did contribute immeasurably to her team’s victory by earning a single-game school record for eight ejections earned. She also contributed six steals.
Fernanda Arambula had three steals while Cornwell had one steal.
The elder Medina said he felt his team was ready for the challenge after losing to Eastlake twice this season by one-goal margins — 6-5 in a league game at Southwestern College on Jan. 17 and 4-3 in last weekend’s San Diego Open tournament.
“I think our girls were really prepared,” the ORHS coach said. “They practiced hard all week and had a lot of confidence. After losing to them twice in one-point games, we knew we could win.”
The tri-championship was set in motion when Hilltop defeated Eastlake, 9-7, at SWC on Jan. 29 and Otay Ranch topped the Lancers, 6-2, in a game played at the Parkway pool on Jan. 31.
The Titans (14-12) had finished the first round of league play 4-0 while Hilltop was 3-1 and Otay Ranch was 2-2. The Mustangs (16-7) finished the second round of league play 4-0.
Defense played a huge part in Otay’s second-round win over Hilltop as Cornwell registered a school-record 17 saves (including one blocked penalty shot) and the Mustangs collected 13 steals.
Sarah Medina led Otay in that game with four goals and six steals.
“We adjusted our defense to their offense and our offense to their defense,” Ernie Medina said.
Mesa League Standings
(Final Regular Season)
Otay Ranch 6-2
Bonita Vista 2-6
Mater Dei Catholic 0-8
South Bay League Standings
Note: Mar Vista wins league title with 10-0 record; Castle Park finishes with 8-2 league record