CORONA DEL MAR — For the first time in recent memory, the Corona del Mar High boys' water polo team held a 50-50 raffle at Tuesday's key nonleague game against Long Beach Wilson.
CdM team parent Jeff Ong won the $225 prize. Ong's pockets might have been fatter, but he was still as nervous as anyone else throughout the game.
At the start, CdM's chances of winning its home opener looked considerably less than 50-50. But the Sea Kings battled back to claim a wild 10-7 overtime victory over the Bruins in a matchup of the top two teams in the CIF Southern Section Division II coaches' poll.
Top-ranked Corona del Mar (2-0) is the defending CIF champion, but returns with a bunch of new players after nearly every contributor from last year's team graduated. The biggest piece was center Chase Watson, the Newport-Mesa Player of the Year who's now at USC. But the Sea Kings still appear to be fine at two meters.
Senior Ben Zepfel scored a game-high five goals in Tuesday's contest. He also had four steals and drew plenty of Wilson kickouts at set.
"It's obviously pretty big shoes to fill, both literally and metaphorically," said a smiling Zepfel. "But I don't really have the same playing style as Chase, because I'm not 6-foot-8, 250 pounds. I'm 6-1, 200. I've gotten a lot of what I do from [CdM assistant and U.S. men's national team player] Ryan Bailey, actually. He has a similar playing style to me. He's a huge guy, but when he plays on the national team, he's not the biggest guy out there. What he teaches me is very applicable to my game."
Zepfel helped CdM apply itself too and rally from a 4-0 opening-quarter deficit against Wilson (1-2). The Bruins were countering hard at the outset and taking advantage of ill-advised CdM shots. First it was Jake Davis, then Brock Gordon open on the counter as Wilson took the four-goal lead.
Corona del Mar drew back within striking distance by the time the quarter ended, as senior Ari Marks scored from about seven meters and Zepfel had a strong move at two meters to cut the deficit in half.
"We're a very young team, and we came out with a lot of nerves," CdM senior Charlie Howarth said. "It took us a little bit to get settled into our system, the style of play that we want to be playing. Once we were able to kind of get our heads on straight and figure out our defensive strategy and our offensive strategy, we were able to put the game in our control. We started to take over from there."
Sea Kings' junior Kyle Trush and Zepfel executed a two-on-one late in the third quarter, with Zepfel putting the shot away to tie the score at 5-5. Howarth then gave CdM its first lead on a counter goal with 4:51 left in the fourth quarter, but Wilson tied it up on Jackson Kimbell's shot from set with 3:04 left.
The game went to overtime, where the Sea Kings dominated after Willis Allen put the Bruins back up. Zepfel, Marks and Howarth scored in the final two minutes of the first overtime period to give the Sea Kings a 9-7 lead. Junior Reid Chase scored the only goal of the second overtime, a hard shot from the outside that caromed around the cage like a pinball machine with 2:40 left.
CdM won despite going just two for 12 in power-play situations. Wilson was one for four by comparison.
Sea Kings senior goalie A.J. Santa Maria also had a strong game with 11 saves. His passes increasingly sparked the Sea Kings' counterattack as the game went on.
"I think A.J. was phenomenal today," CdM Coach Barry O'Dea said. "Last year [goalie] Bruce [Bearer] had this whole thing about passing. Bruce was a great passer, and A.J., he's not all the way there but he's getting pretty close."
Marks and Howarth had two goals each for the Sea Kings. Howarth is playing his first varsity games in nearly two years after he transferred from JSerra after his sophomore season. He said he had a hardship request denied by the Southern Section last year, so he played junior varsity.
Gordon and Kimbell led Wilson with two goals each. The Bruins' senior goalie Nick Hoy (eight saves) had a few words for Howarth after his shot at the end of the game went off the right post.
Howarth, himself a fiery player, didn't need to respond.
"I didn't want to say anything back," he said. "I just pointed at the scoreboard. But they're going to be ready to play us again. They're a hungry team. We're the No. 1 and we have the target on our backs. We need to expect that every game, teams are going to come out with just an intention of really beating on us."
O'Dea plans to have the Sea Kings ready, not that they want to have to overcome a large deficit every game. They're the No. 4 seeds at the South Coast Tournament, which begins Thursday.
"We're pretty deep," said O'Dea, now in his seventh year as coach. "I mean, we go 15 deep. Fifteen players are going to play every time we play … we can be a pretty tough team to beat. [Outscoring Wilson] 8-3 for three quarters [and overtime]? That's not bad. We just have to do a better job of starting the game."
If they can do that, the Sea Kings' chances of another special season could be much better than 50-50.