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Tanner Pulice, defense help CdM boys’ water polo complete comeback against Long Beach Wilson

Down the stretch, every game meant a lot to the Corona del Mar High boys’ water polo team.

The Sea Kings had played themselves into that position, dropping a number of close games in the early going. In fact, the first five losses for CdM this season were all by one goal.

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When the CIF Southern Section playoffs approached, CdM could not guarantee that it would make the cut. The Sea Kings were flirting with the .500 mark, and they needed to scratch out some wins in the Memorial Cup tournament in San Jose.

Now that the Sea Kings have made the postseason, their unquestioned leader, Tanner Pulice, believes that the slow start may have been one of the best things that could have happened to them.

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“I’m a firm believer that you learn more from your losses than you do from winning,” said Pulice, a junior attacker. “We knew that we were going to have to start pulling some games together to get above .500. We achieved that, so we have some good momentum going into playoffs, and I’m excited for the games to come.”

There will be at least one more game for CdM this season.

Pulice scored a game-high six goals to go with two steals, and the No. 4-seeded Sea Kings rallied for a 10-8 win over Long Beach Wilson on Wednesday in a Division 2 first-round game at Belmont Plaza Pool in Long Beach.

CdM (15-13) will host Murrieta Valley (20-10) in the quarterfinals on Saturday. The Nighthawks defeated Goleta Dos Pueblos 10-8 in a first-round game on Wednesday.

Despite having to win at Beckman in a wild-card game on Tuesday to make the main draw, Sea Kings coach Kareem Captan is happy that his team snuck into the playoffs as an at-large team from the Surf League. CdM is now a dangerous team this postseason.

“All I wanted was for them to have a shot at it,” Captan said. “It’s really hard to win a CIF title. It’s really hard to advance.”

The Sea Kings had defeated the Moore League champion Bruins (12-16) twice during the regular season, but Captan kept his guard up.

“[Wilson] has a great tradition here,” Captan said. “We knew coming into this pool that they could beat anybody, and we knew that. They came out, and they showed exactly that. We let in five goals in the first quarter, which is way too much for us. We talked after that quarter about really focusing on the defensive side of the ball, and then we let in three goals the rest of the game.”

The Bruins led 5-3 after Gray Carson scored one of his three goals with 10 seconds remaining in the first quarter.

Captan opted to put Harrison Smith (six saves) in at goalkeeper to replace Rishub Goel. The move, combined with added pressure from the Sea Kings’ field players on defense, helped CdM get back in the game.

Matthew Ueberroth and Gavin Reed also scored goals for the Sea Kings.

“We weren’t really pressing in the beginning,” Pulice said. “We were kind of off our guys. At halftime, our coach told us that we need to press up and really be out on their shooters and make sure that they can’t get good looks at the cage.

“After halftime, I think we shut it down defensively, and that’s definitely what carried us to the win.”

Shane Papa scored both of his goals in the second quarter, the second lifting CdM to a 7-6 lead with 34 seconds left in the first half. The senior defender also had two steals.

“We’ve been coming from behind almost every game,” Papa said. “At the beginning of the season, we would give up the first goal every game. Against Laguna [Beach], we went down 3-0, and we came back.

“We knew that if we went down early, we wouldn’t worry. We would keep fighting and eventually get them.”

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