It's 'Miller Time' again for Sage Hill

CORONA DEL MAR — Over four years later and the Sage Hill vs. Costa Mesa boys' water polo rivalry is still alive and well.

For the Lightning, it's still "Miller Time."

Senior Kevin Miller scored the game-winning goal Wednesday night, a backhander from set with 23 seconds left as Sage Hill outlasted Costa Mesa, 11-10, in an Orange Coast League game at Corona del Mar High.

"It's always been a close game, since before I came [to Sage Hill]," Miller said. "Costa Mesa is our biggest game, our biggest rival."

Miller's older brother, Jimmy, had the game-winning goal in 2006, when Sage Hill beat Costa Mesa in sudden-death overtime. Since then, the league games have been battles, almost always decided by a single goal.

Last year, it was 5-4, Sage Hill.

Miller made sure Sage Hill came out on top again, after a strong pass in from fellow senior Eric Hallett.

"I was thinking about calling a timeout and I saw Eric Hallett was countering hard," Sage Hill Coach Tom Norton said. "It was just a great counterattack. I think that's [Miller's] favorite shot, the backhander, which is great when it works. He's a great player. I'm glad I didn't call timeout."

Both Costa Mesa (4-8, 0-3 in league) and Sage Hill (2-10, 1-2) have been struggling this year. But Miller, Hallett and freshman Arya Nakhjavani each scored three goals, helping the Lightning eke out the win over their rivals.

A year after winning its first CIF playoff game in school history, Sage Hill has an uphill battle to get back to the CIF playoffs.

But the Lightning are on a modest two-game winning streak after losing their first 10 games.

"It's been a tough year," Miller said, adding the program lost three seniors and three other players who decided not to come back. "Luckily, we've had two freshmen who have been pretty good."

The Mustangs earned an ejection in the closing seconds Wednesday, but couldn't get a shot off after a timeout behind pressure defense from Sage senior Eric Fish.

Costa Mesa, led by junior James Lewis' game-highs seven goals and five steals, finished just one-for-six on the power play.

"Six-on-five has been rough for us this year, but when we have the limited practice time we've had we have to prioritize," Costa Mesa Coach Justin Taylor said. "Now that we have more pool time, that's certainly going to be one of the things we look at."

The game was tied 5-5 at halftime, and Lewis scored on the Mustangs' first possession of the second half. But Sage Hill went on a five-goal run — three by Nakhjavani — to take a 10-6 lead late in the third quarter.

The Mustangs, undeterred, scored the next four goals, the last coming on sophomore Wyatt Ferris' no-look strike from the left with 2:03 left in the game. That tied the score at 10-10, surprising nobody.

"It's just always close," Taylor said.

Junior Jamie Sacco and senior Brian Lozano also scored for Mesa. Taylor, a former goalie himself, also loved the game played by junior goalie Mitchell Grandia (11 saves).

"He got to a lot of balls that I didn't think he was supposed to get to," Taylor said. "If it weren't for his effort tonight, we would have been out of the game early."

Sophomore Jeremy Dorne and freshman Ryan Sung also scored for the Lightning. Senior goalie Thomas Lubowe made four saves.

"Same time next year," Taylor said, maybe looking forward to yet another close game against Sage Hill in 2011.

Norton smiled too, a bigger one after the game was over than in the heat of the moment.

"It's an exciting game for the fans," he said. "Not necessarily for the coaches."

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