She stands just 5 feet 2, but junior team captain Sofia Rice excels at drawing exclusions for the Costa Mesa High girls’ water polo team.
Rice did everything she could to keep the Mustangs competitive Wednesday night, as Costa Mesa played Fullerton in the first round of the CIF Southern Section Division 5 playoffs.
She drew seven exclusions in the game. Fullerton coach Shane Unger watched Rice single-handedly foul out two of his starters, junior Emmy Yzguerra and sophomore Sophie Zener, in the second half.
“We had some adversity,” Unger said. “It showed well on my team, I feel, keeping their composure and fighting through it. Those are two of my main players, and that hurt us. Emmy especially, because she fouled out so early [with six minutes left in the third quarter].”
One player who did not foul out for Fullerton, though, was senior center Kaya Ortega. She scored a game-high six goals as Fullerton beat the Mustangs 11-4 at Troy High, ending Costa Mesa’s season.
Rice dominated statistically for Costa Mesa (15-15) with three goals and five steals as well. But nobody else scored for the Mustangs until the fourth quarter. With the game already out of reach, sophomore Sey Currie made a nice move inside with 5:07 remaining in the game to bring the team within 9-4.
“The pressure of CIF really got to us,” Costa Mesa coach Dustin Serrano said. “We’re super-young, with two returning starters that played in CIF last year with Sofia and [senior captain] Kaylie [Tickenoff]. I think it was a little bit rough, but it’s a good learning lesson for the younger girls. It’s a growing year. We’ve been up and down all year.”
The Orange Coast League runner-up Mustangs never led against Fullerton (22-7), which finished tied for second in the Freeway League. Fullerton junior Erica Barton added two goals. Fullerton, which led 5-1 at halftime, also got a standout game from sophomore goalie Maddy Toy, who made 14 saves.
“To be honest with you, going into the season, I was thinking that [goalie] was going to be a weak link for me,” Unger said. “[Toy] has worked really hard and stepped up, she’s proved me wrong, which I’m super-happy about.”
Tickenoff made three steals and senior Harper Yeager had two steals for Costa Mesa, which was able to convert just one of the seven power-play opportunities earned by Rice. Fullerton converted three of five power-play chances, as well as a penalty shot.
The Mustangs primarily relied on Rice’s outside shooting, as Fullerton crashed on two meters any time that Mesa sophomore center Taiuta Uiagalelei received the ball.
“The opportunities were there,” Serrano said. “We just weren’t able to finish … [Uiagalelei] will be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years. She’ll get there. We have plenty of young athletes ready to work, and we’re just excited for next season.”
There were tears after the Mustangs huddled for the final time, but also a feeling that Costa Mesa battled after moving up a CIF division. Last year, Costa Mesa made the Division 6 quarterfinals before losing to finalist Redlands East Valley.
“I know that we all put in a lot of effort,” Rice said. “We were definitely prepared, but we went into this game with a lot of nerves, thinking this could be our last game. I think we got over that after the first quarter, and we all did really good.”
Fullerton plays at Diamond Bar in the second round at 5 p.m. Thursday. Diamond Bar beat La Palma Kennedy 10-4 in another first-round game on Wednesday.