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Huntington Beach walks tightrope to S&R Sport Invitational final, comes up short

Huntington Beach walks tightrope to S&R Sport Invitational final, comes up short
Huntington Beach High's Chase Dodd, shown trying to score at Mater Dei on Sept. 1, helped the Oilers finish second in the S&R Sport Invitational at Irvine's Woollett Aquatics Center on Saturday. (Drew A. Kelley)

In the end, the magic just ran out for the Huntington Beach High boys’ water polo team.

The Oilers had willed their way to the final of the S&R Sport Invitational with back-to-back one-goal victories, but Atherton Sacred Heart Prep proved too much to handle on Saturday night.

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Larsen Weigle scored six goals for the Gators, and Sacred Heart Prep defeated Huntington Beach 12-7 in the championship game at Woollett Aquatics Center on the campus of Irvine High.

The Oilers’ offense was stuck in neutral in the first half, and Huntington Beach (11-8) found itself down 5-1 at halftime.

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“In the first half, they came out strong with the press, and I don’t think that we were ready for that,” said Ethan Crooks, who had a hat-trick in the final. “We were ready for them to be in more of a zone instead because we usually have our centers being an asset.

“They really came out and pressed us, and that’s really what killed it because we just lost the ball so much.”

In extending its press, Sacred Heart Prep made Huntington Beach make longer passes. Many possessions ended without a shot attempt, and the Gators made the Oilers pay.

Freshman goalkeeper Griffin Price (five saves) delivered superb lead passes in transition, and the Gators executed on several outnumbered attacks to build a 4-1 lead after the first quarter.

“That was kind of the goal to play a heavy, heavy press and get some movement and some counterattack going,” Gators coach Brian Kreutzkamp said. “That’s when we are at our best, when we’re swimming and moving.

“[The Oilers are] really good in the half-court, so we tried to keep it out of that as much as possible.”

Sacred Heart Prep also received three goals apiece from Walker Seymour and Will Riley.

Huntington Beach rallied with four goals in a three-minute span in the third quarter to close the deficit to 7-5. The Oilers got goals from Chase Dodd, Reilly Pfeiffer, Josh Bowman and Crooks during the run.

Cooper Haddad also scored on a back-handed spin shot from five meters out, and Huntington Beach trailed by a margin of 9-6 heading to the final period.

Huntington Beach won its semifinal 14-13 over San Jose Bellarmine College Prep. Haddad scored the game-winning goal with five seconds remaining, rising from the water and uncorking a right-handed laser that went off the crossbar and landed in the cage.

Haddad, a transfer from Mater Dei, has made an immediate impact in his first five games with the Oilers, although he fouled out of the final.

“He’s still finding his rhythm because he hasn’t played for a while,” Oilers coach Sasa Branisavljevic said. “He’s a huge asset for any team that he plays on, and we’re just lucky to have him.”

Huntington Beach had fallen behind 13-12 on a goal by Dominick Kirk with 1:08 remaining.

In need of a quick goal, Saxon Varon demonstrated his vision in connecting with Dodd on a backdoor play with the pressure on.

“I saw an opportunity where Chase [Dodd] was open weak side while Cooper [Haddad] was also open on the one-two,” Varon said. “I saw Chase was in two-meters. He had a wide-open catch, cross pass near side. It was a good pass that he was able to score [on].”

The semifinal victory over Bellarmine came after Huntington Beach ended Friday’s action with a 15-14 overtime win against Dana Hills.

Branisavljevic is proud of the way his team has found ways to win tight games this season.

“It’s good to see that in overtimes, so far we are three for three,” he said. “The boys definitely rise to the occasion when it comes to effort. They invest themselves.

“It’s just the mistakes, so we have to focus more on the process so that we can eliminate some of the mistakes that I find unnecessary, especially transition exclusions and exclusions away from the ball.”

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