IRVINE — On a rainy Saturday morning, the Corona del Mar High boys' water polo team spent time in the CdM gym.
The Sea Kings listened to a message from Spencer Pirdy and Bryan Riblett, two members of the program when CdM last won a CIF title in 2001.
Coach Barry O'Dea also had his players walk around to all four corners of the gym, with senior center Chase Watson reading off all the CIF title banners.
Finally, the Sea Kings reached the place where their banner would be placed.
"They were pretty pumped," O'Dea said. "We had a big morning."
The afternoon wasn't so bad either.
No. 2-seeded Corona del Mar captured its Orange County-record 13th CIF title after outlasting top-seeded Murrieta Valley, 11-10, in the Division II championship match at the Woollett Aquatics Center.
Junior Ben Zepfel scored the game-winning goal with less than three minutes left and senior Hayden Leach made a couple key steals in the final minute, helping the Sea Kings (23-8) emerge as champions in their first year back in Division II.
"I really think our big turning point was Battle of the Bay," said senior driver Will Havercroft, who had two steals and a pair of field blocks in a strong CdM defensive effort. "I knew from that moment on that we were going to win CIF. I had no doubt in my mind."
Watson scored five goals, which tied him for the game-high with Murrieta Valley senior Eric Van de Mortal. He had two quick ones in the first quarter, one on a trick play on the first possession. The rest of the team dropped back on defense but Watson sprinted ahead, took the lengthy pass from senior goalie Bruce Bearer and scored as the shot clock expired.
"We wanted to loosen up right at the beginning of the game," said O'Dea, who celebrated after the game by doing a front flip into the pool. "We wanted to have a little fun … Bruce Bearer is one of the best passing goalies I've ever seen in my life. We call it 'dropping dimes,' and he dropped a dime there to Watson."
Watson scored again just over a minute later and CdM had a quick 2-0 lead with 5:13 left in the first quarter. But Murrieta Valley (28-4), making its sixth straight CIF finals appearance, never went away. The Nighthawks stayed close and took their first lead, at 9-8, midway through the third quarter on Jantz Johnson's strike.
Then Johnson found senior center Trent Virgil for a goal and Murrieta Valley had a 10-8 lead with a minute left in the third. Virgil, last year's co-Division III Player of the Year, found the back of the net for the only time as he was blanketed by Leach for much of the game.
The Sea Kings called timeout, but didn't panic.
"[Murrieta Valley] has lost in the finals the last four years," Bearer said. "You have to know that when you go up, they're going to come storming back. I think we just weathered their storm and finished the game strong."
The weather itself wasn't a factor, as the rain stopped a couple hours earlier. Zepfel was a factor.
Down two goals, O'Dea inserted the junior, who drew an exclusion. After a subsequent double-exclusion left the Sea Kings with a rare five-on-four opportunity, Zepfel found the left corner to bring the Sea Kings back within one.
Senior lefty Miles Carpenter added his second goal of the game with 6:02 left in the fourth, knotting the score at 10-10. Then, Zepfel scored again with 2:51 to go after being fouled outside five meters.
The goal would hold up as the game-winner.
"Championships are won by guys you don't expect, and Ben Zepfel and Miles Carpenter are probably the two guys you didn't expect," O'Dea said. "They came up huge."
Twice in the final minutes, the Nighthawks called timeouts to try to orchestrate a tying goal. Watson sat out at the end, a call he made himself. He watched senior Evan Ramsey (five steals) and Leach each make big steals at the end. Leach made the final one on Virgil in the closing seconds, as Murrieta Valley was held scoreless in the final eight minutes of the game.
"There's guys that are quicker than me," Watson said. "I thought we put in the best defensive squad in, and it paid off. Hayden played unbelievable defense in the fourth quarter. In my opinion, he's the best defender in Division II."
Murrieta Valley Coach Bryan Lynton, who went to high school with O'Dea at Hacienda Heights Rowland, couldn't believe it. Despite making the CIF finals in each of the last six years — three times in Division V and twice in Division III — Lynton's team is 1-5 in those games. All five losses have been by a single goal.
Still, he gave credit to CdM and its 6-foot-7 center of attention.
"With Watson in the middle, you kind of have to run a zone," Lynton said. "[Senior Cody] Wetherbee did a great job guarding him for us, but you know, the size advantage is just huge. We had to send help, and our zone wasn't great. It was good, it wasn't great, and you've got to play great in order to win."
Ramsey finished the season winning every sprint he swam for the Sea Kings. Bearer finished with eight saves and senior defender Nick Treadaway had three assists for CdM.
Senior lefty Chris Robertson also scored for the Sea Kings, who know just where that banner will go in the gym.
"We pulled it off," Watson said. "We finished strong."