The Corona del Mar High boys' water polo team did an admirable job much of the game of slowing down Foothill senior two-meter man Joe Molina.
Molina had drawn a couple of exclusions, but he was scoreless through the first three quarters of the CIF Southern Section Division 2 title game. Credit CdM two-meter defenders Ryan Schildwachter and Shane Papa for slowing Molina down.
The Sea Kings were hanging around, down by just a goal midway through the fourth quarter. But when Molina struck, he struck big.
First the Cal commit drew a penalty shot and scored it. Then, with just more than two minutes left, Molina buried a quick shot from about eight meters into the lower left-hand corner.
The top-seeded Knights were on their way to winning their third Division 2 title in four years, 10-7 over the No. 2-seeded Sea Kings on Saturday afternoon at Woollett Aquatics Center.
"I thought we did a good job containing him throughout the entire game, and then we fell asleep there in the fourth," first-year CdM head coach Kareem Captan said. "When the boys try to get up and win, as young players, that's natural. They get anxious to move on offense and kind of lose focus defensively. You know, Molina's a great player and he came through for them at the end."
Corona del Mar (21-10), making its first Division 2 finals appearance since 2011, was denied in its attempt to win its first CIF title since 2010 and 14th overall. The Sea Kings never led against Foothill (24-7), but it was never more than a two-goal deficit until Molina's goal.
Foothill freshman goalie William Harrison played large, recording 14 saves. Two of them were "one-on-nobody" stops, one on CdM senior co-captain Henry Wilde in the opening moments of the game and another on sophomore Tanner Pulice midway through the third quarter.
"I thought we had the opportunities to put them away," Captan said. "In the finals, you can't redo any quarters and you can't move on to the next game. If you get good looks in front of the cage, you've got to put them away, but our kids never stopped pushing. I think that's been their character for the whole season, never stop pushing and attacking. They went for it, and I couldn't be more proud of them."
Harrison was almost matched save-for-save by another Harrison, CdM sophomore keeper Harrison Smith, who had 10 saves and a steal. Cooper (three assists) and senior Hayden Roletter each scored twice for the Sea Kings, who got a goal each from Pulice, Schildwachter and senior left-hander Alex Taxman. Senior center Will Klein drew three exclusions and Pulice drew two for CdM, which converted four of its eight power-play chances.
Molina and fellow seniors Zane Scott and Phillip Waldman each scored two goals for Foothill, which delivered the fifth CIF title for longtime head coach Jim Brumm.
CdM drew within a goal twice in the fourth quarter. The first time came on the Sea Kings' first possession of the quarter, a nice post-up goal by Cooper. After Waldman struck from outside, Roletter's power-play goal assisted by Wilde pulled CdM within 7-6 with 4:44 remaining in the game.
But Molina drew the penalty shot on the next possession, and his next goal after that essentially iced the game.
Molina said he saw senior teammate J.T. Miller (one goal, two assists and two field blocks) driving across the cage, and Smith drifted a bit in goal.
"I saw the opening, so I just picked it up and hoped for the best," Molina said. "It was kind of a lucky shot, I guess … I think [CdM] came out with an aggressive statement. I'm not shy to aggressiveness, but it's a little bit of a surprise when they come out that aggressive. I think they kind of wanted to get into my head, but I tried to keep my composure as best as I could and just do what's best for my team."
What was best for the Knights was another Division 2 title, but it also meant heartbreak for CdM.
"This is the first time I've ever made it past the [CIF quarterfinals]," a teary-eyed Cooper said after the game. "The best and worst I've felt were this season, but that's what happens when you go for the big one. You risk getting hurt."
Still, returning the storied Sea Kings program to a CIF title game is a good legacy for the seniors to leave. CdM also won another Pacific Coast League title this season before moving to the Sunset League next year.
"We fought and we never backed down," Wilde said. "We played every single game like it was our last, and I just love playing with my friends, my brothers. It was an awesome year. Good to be back in the finals for CdM. It's definitely a step in the right direction for the next couple of years."