The Huntington Beach High boys’ water polo team had spectators at Woollett Aquatics Center on upset alert Wednesday night.
The Oilers were in a position many might not have expected. They had a one-goal advantage on defending champion Studio City Harvard-Westlake late in the third quarter of the semifinals of the CIF Southern Section Division 1 playoffs.
But a quick goal at center by Harvard-Westlake’s Mot Stothart with two seconds remaining tied the score at 5-5 entering the fourth quarter.
Then, the Wolverines exploded.
Top-seeded Harvard-Westlake scored five more goals, turning the tight contest into a 10-7 victory. The Wolverines (27-2) will play No. 2 Newport Harbor (26-3) in the championship match on Saturday at a time to be determined. It’s a rematch of last year’s section final, which was won 5-3 by Harvard-Westlake.
The Sailors advanced the title match with a 9-6 win over Los Angeles Loyola in the earlier semifinal on Wednesday.
The season isn’t over for Huntington Beach (18-9), which was trying to make its first Division 1 final since 2016. The Oilers will compete in the CIF State Southern California Regional playoffs, which begin on Nov. 22.
Senior Cooper Haddad and junior Chase Dodd each scored twice for Huntington Beach in the semifinal. Senior defender Joshua Bowman, junior left-hander Ethan Crooks and junior center Tyler Padua added one goal each.
Senior goalkeeper Jacob Pyle made eight saves for the Oilers, who kept it close the whole way. Still, their only lead of the game was short-lived after Padua’s backhand goal from center, assisted by Dodd, with 1:05 remaining in the third quarter.
“Harvard is a hell of a team,” Huntington Beach coach Sasa Branisavljevic said. “You give them little pockets and little openings, and they take advantage of them instantly. We knew what we were going to do, and they still do it. Congrats to them.
“We ran out of gas. They did a good job of executing the press, and put pressure on us in the fourth quarter. I mean, that’s the aspect of the game that we need to learn from Harvard. That’s what championship teams do, and we’re hoping to get there next year. In the fourth quarter, you’ve got to turn the engines on and pull that extra effort out and throw everything you have at the other team. They were able to do that.”
Senior George Karas had three goals and five steals for Harvard-Westlake, and coach Brian Flacks called it Karas’ best match of the season. Nicholas Tierney, George Avakian and Ethan Shipman — also all seniors — scored twice, while senior goalkeeper Nolan Krutonog made seven saves.
Flacks said Stothart’s goal late in the third was a big one for his Wolverines, who seemed to be jump-started.
“[Huntington Beach] did such a good job playing in zones on us and forcing tough perimeter shots under pressure,” Flacks said. “We kind of spread things out a little bit differently in the fourth quarter, and got our centers some open looks and got some better perimeter shots. You know, they’ve been big all year. I commend the kids. These kids have unfair expectations put on them every year because of past teams at Harvard-Westlake, and they’ve been resilient in a lot of games this season.”
Haddad showed perspective after the loss, saying he was proud of the Oilers’ effort.
“I couldn’t be more proud of my guys,” he said. “I’m grateful. Every time we play Harvard, first of all, is an opportunity of a lifetime for me. An opportunity to play the best team, the No. 1 team, is pretty legit. Even though it’s my senior year and I would have loved to go out with a ring, I love it, because I think it really sets us up for next year.”
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