You had to figure Monday’s CIF Southern Section Division II girls’ water polo championship final between Laguna Beach and Agoura would go down to the wire at Belmont Plaza Pool in Long Beach.
And it did.
As in two previous hotly-contested matches the teams played during the regular season, Monday’s final had a dramatic ending that saw Agoura score with time winding down to pull out an 11-10 victory and win the division crown.
Emily Schmachtenberger’s goal with 2.9 seconds left gave the Chargers the lead, then goalie Sara Gralitzer blocked Natasha Schulmann’s shot at the horn to preserve the win.
“They just pushed in one more shot than we did,” Laguna assistant coach Ethan Damato said. “Up until that last second of the game, our girls thought we would win. They played hard the entire way and that’s a testament to the character of this team and their season. They played tough, played hard, against everybody.
“I think everyone at the pool was feeling for our seniors.”
By winning the rubber match, second-seeded Agoura (26-6) went 2-1 against the top-seeded Breakers (25-7) this year.
Agoura held on for a 10-9 win over the Breakers on Jan. 19 at the Tournament of Champions in Santa Barbara. Laguna drew even by posting an 8-7 win over the Chargers on Feb. 3 at the Southern California Championships.
The 11 goals tied for the most given up in a game this year by the Breakers and marked just the third time that a team had scored 10 or more goals on them this season.
“That is the toughest pool to coach at,” Damato said of Belmont Plaza. “The strength of this team all year has been our defense and ability to communicate in the pool. We couldn’t hear anything out there. It was tough.
“We knew what to expect from Agoura and they knew what to expect from us. They’ve played in four-straight finals and most of our girls hadn’t been there before. In a game like that, emotions can get the best of you. It took a quarter or two for our girls to get going, to play together. Once we did, we were doing well.”
Laguna started slowly and couldn’t find the range on some early shots, yet trailed only 2-1 after one quarter. The score was tied three times in the second quarter, the last coming at 4-4 at the half.
Schulmann scored Laguna’s first goal, junior Erin Reid the next two and freshman Lexi Ross the final one of the half to tie the score.
A goal by sophomore Taylor Dodson at 6:03 in the third quarter had given Laguna its first lead of the match, 5-4. The Breakers opened up an 8-6 lead with 47 seconds left in the quarter when Schulmann scored from the outside, her third goal of the match.
Laguna took an 8-7 lead into the final quarter where Agoura drew even again at 8-8. Ross then netted her second goal from two-meters to push the Breakers back into the lead with 3:59 to play. It would be their last lead, however, as the Chargers scored the next two goals, the final one on a nine-meter shot that just did beat the shot clock buzzer, to take a 10-9 lead.
Laguna pulled into a 10-10 tie when Reid scored with 1:01 to play. The Breakers had a chance to take the lead but were called for an offensive foul with 37 seconds left. Ten seconds later, Schulmann drew an exclusion and Agoura set up for the last shot, which was delivered by Schmachtenberger and barely trickled into the front-left corner of the goal.
The match was the final prep contest for three starters Breanna Duplisea, Jessica McKee and Celia Huling. As sophomores, they also played for a division championship and finished runner-up to Corona del Mar.
In their four-year varsity careers, the starters were part of 89 victories, reached two division finals, the semifinal round and quarterfinal round. They had been coached by Rick McKee up though part of this season until McKee resigned and Damato and Chad Beeler took over the program.
“We’ve had such an amazing time in this program,” Duplisea said after swimming some laps in the Olympic pool following Monday’s final. She was poised and had her emotions in-check as she put the game into proper perspective, even though she was disappointed in her team’s last-second loss.
Duplisea had shut down Agoura two-meter player Carly Clark Monday and finished with a goal and four steals. She and Clark will be roommates when they enter UC Santa Barbara in the fall.
“Earlier today we decorated each others cars with messages for the game, and we had so much fun,” she said. “And that’s what this year has been about. This team really bonded and had such a good time. It’s tough to lose this but it is a game and for me, I get more personal qualities from this.
“The important thing is that these girls are my best friends,” she added, her voice cracking for the first time, the emotion coming to the surface. “That’s what I’ll take with me.”
Jessica McKee agreed.
McKee, who had a pair of steals and has given a verbal commitment to Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., finally let her emotions out as she went to the reassuring embrace of her sister Jackie, 22, after the game.
“In 20 years from now, it won’t be that we won or lost, it will be about my best friends from this team,” she said. “I love every girl on this team and am proud of what we have accomplished. This season had some tough spots but I’m proud that we were able to get this far to the finals.”
The season isn’t over for Laguna, however. Today at 3:30 p.m., the Breakers will take on Ayala in the first round of the CIF-SS Toyota Girls’ Water Polo Masters Tournament at the William Wollett Jr. Center in Irvine.
The Breakers are the No. 6 seed in the tournament and the Bulldogs No. 11.
The winner advances to play at 7:30 p.m. today against the winner of a first-round match between No. 3-seed Corona del Mar and No. 14-seed Redlands that also begins at 2:30 p.m. today.
The 16-team tournament concludes Saturday with semifinal and final round play.