The Costa Mesa High boys’ water polo team needed its goalkeeper more than ever Thursday night in a CIF Southern Section Division 3 second-round game against Sherman Oaks Notre Dame.
Joey Palmblade sized up a five-meter penalty shot with 2:54 to go, the Mustangs clinging to a two-goal lead and the momentum swinging in the opposite direction.
“The only thing going through my mind was that I had to get the stop,” Palmblade said.
And the junior did just that.
Palmblade read the eyes of the penalty shooter, Levon Sahakyan, and reacted swiftly to his right, recording one of his 10 saves to help send No. 4-seeded Costa Mesa on to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2008 with a nail-biting 8-7 home victory over Notre Dame.
The Mustangs (17-9) will host Santa Barbara (18-14) in the quarterfinals on Saturday. The Dons defeated Corona Santiago 11-8 in the second round on Thursday.
“It’s kind of luck and kind of skill,” Palmblade said of the art of goalkeeping. “My teammate said he was going to go net, but he took a quick peek to my right and I just reacted.”
The entire contest was an ever-changing duel of reactions.
Notre Dame came out with clear intentions to take Costa Mesa’s top scorer, Caedmon Fisher, out of the game with man-coverage throughout and a quick double team every time he touched the ball.
That strategy worked, especially in the first half, as Fisher was held scoreless and the Knights jumped out to a quick two-goal lead in the first quarter. Tommy Beres had both goals for Notre Dame.
The extra defender focused on Fisher opened up scoring opportunities for others. Costa Mesa answered those two goals with a couple of its own from Anderson Todd and Teak Zachary to take a 2-2 tie into the second quarter.
Costa Mesa scored first in the second quarter on a shot from Will Harrington, but the Knights were quick to bring things even with an answer from Miles Karlin at the 4:22 mark of the period.
Zachary, who finished with a game-high three goals, again took advantage of the extra attention on Fisher. He scored twice more in the second quarter to help the Mustangs take a 5-3 lead into halftime.
“What I’ve focused on this season is to cover back on defense, feed Caedmon, and let him carry us,” Zachary said. “But if we need to switch, people can feed me and I can score goals.”
Fisher got going after halftime, scoring the first of his two goals at the 6:17 mark of the third to give Costa Mesa a 6-3 lead.
But Notre Dame answered again, first on a penalty goal from Sahakyan, then on a score from Jake Wilkerson, bringing the Mustangs’ advantage back to 6-5 with 3:51 to go.
Gavin Fisher’s goal with 3:33 left in the third gave Costa Mesa a 7-5 lead, but after an important block on the right side of the pool, Caedmon Fisher let out a passionate scream and was excluded with 2:50 left in the period. He was held out of the game by co-coach Cody Serrano.
Fisher returned with just under four minutes to go and quickly scored, upping Costa Mesa’s lead to 8-5 with 3:54 remaining.
Wilkerson helped the Knights inch closer with a goal at the 3:25 mark, which was followed by a post-up style score from John Patrick Seward, cutting Costa Mesa’s lead to one with 2:36 left.
The Mustangs, thanks to the late-game heroics of Palmblade, survived the late rally mounted by the Knights (15-8).