CORONA DEL MAR — Last year, the Corona del Mar High boys' water polo team had to travel to Riverside for its CIF Southern Section Division II quarterfinal match against King.
This year the Sea Kings won the coin flip. They still had to play a team from Riverside in the quarterfinals, Riverside Poly, but the match was at home.
For the Sea Kings' eight seniors, Saturday's contest was the last possible home match of the season.
They made it count.
CdM cruised into the Division II semifinals after topping Poly, 18-8, behind a five-goal effort from senior two-meter man Ben Zepfel.
"We played four years here and this was our last game," said senior Ari Marks, who scored three goals Saturday. "We were going to give it all we have and try to make that final statement in the last game in our pool. That was a little bit of motivation."
The top-seeded Sea Kings are now just two games away from defending their Division II title. They play Northwood in a semifinal match at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Irvine's Woollett Aquatics Center.
The Sea Kings beat Northwood twice in Pacific Coast League play.
Corona del Mar (23-6) encountered some resistance from Poly (19-12) early on. Zepfel scored the first two goals for the Sea Kings, but Poly answered as senior Will Weggeland scored from five meters out and Robert Bentley netted one on the counterattack.
But Marks scored a six-on-five goal to end the first quarter, and the Pacific Coast League champions dominated the second. They took a 9-4 advantage over Poly, the second-place team from the Big VIII League, into halftime.
"I think they were a little jittery in the first quarter, but once we settled down I think we got control of the game pretty well," CdM Coach Barry O'Dea said. "When Ben puts one or two away out at two meters, I think everybody starts to settle down a little bit. I think our counterattack started opening up."
Zepfel scored four of his five goals in the first half. He also drew four exclusions, helping a CdM power-play attack that went five for 10.
"Ben, this whole year, has just been incredible in two meters," CdM senior Charlie Howarth said. "The great thing about him is that we're going to get a productive game from him in any facet, whether it's scoring or drawing those ejections. I'm extremely proud of Ben's effort in two meter. We're lucky to have him."
The power-play efficiency (50%) wasn't as good as in the second-round win over Great Oak of Temecula, but drawing the exclusions enabled CdM to get Poly seniors Harry Otto and Nolyn Wild in foul trouble.
Both picked up their second kick-out in the second quarter. Otto fouled out soon after.
"We knew that we were deeper than them," said Howarth, who drew two of the 10 Bears exclusions. "We knew we had more talent, but we knew that they were going to play with a lot of intensity. At this point, every game you play very may well be the last game of your season. We expected a very physical and intense game, especially in transition on the counterattack. I thought for the most part our guys did a good job of staying physical and staying strong but, at the same time, still playing clean … I thought we did a good job of putting the game away in the second half."
Poly cut the lead to four goals when Jake Pope scored on a six-on-five midway through the third quarter. CdM did not panic. Zepfel scored his fifth goal on the power play on a nice pass from junior Colby Watson to end the third quarter.
Then Marks scored on a counter and Watson fired one in from up top, giving the Sea Kings a 13-6 advantage with 5:46 left in the game. O'Dea simply pumped his fist, knowing his team was moving on.
Watson had two goals and three assists for CdM and also played solid defense on Weggeland, along with CdM junior Kyle Trush (one goal). Wes Sherburne also scored twice for CdM and Reid Chase, Kyle Kreunen, Armen Mavusi, Matt Sherburne and Jake Wyatt added single goals. Wyatt's goal was also on the six-on-five, as he literally smacked a one-timer into the net.
CdM senior goalie A.J. Santa Maria (eight saves) and junior Patrick McKenzie (two saves) helped limit the Bears, though Weggeland did score a team-high three goals.
Now the Sea Kings, who have talked all year about their depth, are back deep in the playoffs. Howarth is trying to get back to the Division II final, the place he helped JSerra reach in 2009 before the Lions fell to Mater Dei.
"It's incredible being a part of a team that can [substitute] six for six that frequently," Howarth said. "We can realistically throw in a new starting lineup every game, we're so deep. Whether I'm a seventh man, whether I'm coming in off the bench or starting, everybody is doing their job to be productive for the team.
"It's been a good formula, and we're going to keep with it."