Sea Kings denied CIF crown

IRVINE — The Corona del Mar and Long Beach Wilson high school boys' water polo teams played for the third time this season Saturday.

Corona del Mar had won the first two games in overtime. This one was more important, as the traditional powerhouses played with the CIF Southern Section Division II title on the line.

Wilson Coach Tony Martinho figured his No. 3-seeded Bruins had more than an outside shot against the top-seeded Sea Kings.

The outside shot of junior Maxwell Irving was almost all Wilson needed to pull the upset.

Irving scored a match-high four goals and also made a key defensive play as the Sea Kings were stunned, 7-6, before a standing-room only crowd of about 1,500 at Woollett Aquatics Center.

CdM (24-7), which returned no starters from last year's CIF championship team, came up just short in its bid to repeat. Wilson (21-10) won its first CIF title since 2005, and its first in Division II.

"We had a good season," CdM Coach Barry O'Dea said. "Obviously we would have liked to have won it, but Long Beach played a good game. And we played a good game. It was a one-goal game. We missed some shots, missed some six-on-fives and that's that. Championships come down to putting away your six-on-fives and playing some defense, and Wilson did it better than we did today."

The Sea Kings converted just four of 11 on the power-play, a statistic O'Dea called "rough." Wilson was four of eight.

A lot of the credit for CdM's struggles had to go to Wilson senior goalie Nick Hoy, who made 15 saves. Martinho said it was Hoy's best game of the season.

Corona del Mar, which was the top-ranked team in Division II all season, led Saturday's game by a 4-3 score at halftime. Ben Zepfel, Reid Chase, Charlie Howarth and Jake Wyatt all found the back of the net for the Sea Kings in the first half.

But Wilson (21-10) got a power-play strike from junior Jackson Kimbell before Irving struck for his third goal from up, as the Bruins took a 5-4 edge less than two minutes into the third quarter.

From there, CdM played catch-up. Irving again found the lower-right corner on a six-on-five to up the Bruins' lead to two goals, before Zepfel scored on a spin move from five meters midway through the third quarter.

"After that first one went into the back of the net, I knew it was all me this game," Irving said. "I felt like anything I would throw up was going in. It's great. I've never played in a championship before. This is the biggest game I've ever played in. To have a great game, it was good."

Irving said the win meant a lot for the Bruins, who won nine Division I titles in 10 years from 1996-2005.

"We're just bringing it back for Wilson, showing that it's not gone," he said. "We still have it. [Beating CdM after the two earlier losses] is too sweet, and especially in CIF? It's great."

CdM had three more chances to tie the score on six-on-five chances but was denied every time. CdM senior goalie A.J. Santa Maria (eight saves) kept his team within shouting distance, making a huge stop on Thomas Martinho on a one-on-nobody opportunity with just more than four minutes left in the game.

But Wilson senior Willis Allen soon buried a shot from six meters, pushing the Bruins' lead to 7-5 with 3:54 left. Then the Sea Kings finally scored on the power play, on Ari Marks' shot from the left side 20 seconds later. It brought CdM back within a goal, but it was also the lone second-half power-play conversion for CdM in six opportunities.

"They put away more shots than we did," said Zepfel, who scored twice to lead CdM. "I think we both played great games. I couldn't have asked anybody on my team to play a better game than that, but when it comes down to it, you win some and you lose some, you know? They executed, and they put away more shots. We had plenty of opportunities, but we didn't execute really. I think their goalie played a great game and made some amazing blocks.

"They played with desperation. Their field blockers were just getting in front of everything."

The Sea Kings kept the pressure on. After Wilson had an outside shot field blocked by CdM senior Wes Sherburne, CdM called timeout with 31 seconds left to set up a final chance to send the game to overtime.

That final shot never came.

Irving pressured the ball and a pass went into the middle of the pool, where there were no Sea Kings to be found. Irving swam to grab it with 15 seconds left in regulation.

"I was watching his eyes, and I saw he was going to pass across my body," Irving said. "I just waited for that arm to go, waited for that pass to go, and I jammed him. I jammed his arm to make that pass short."

Two CdM assistant coaches received red cards after that, one coming out of a Wilson timeout and one after the game ended. O'Dea said it was because the CdM coaching staff wanted to know if Wilson's free throw would be going to their goalie or at mid-tank, and the referee would not tell him.

It didn't really matter at that point. The Bruins were on their way.

"It is what it is," O'Dea said. "The guys, they're high school kids playing a hard game, and they're performing. [It's] a one-goal game, so that game could have gone either way. We led after the first half, they led after the second half."

The final score was all that mattered to Wilson. After Irving's defensive play the Bruins only needed to play keep-away to win their 12th CIF title.

Corona del Mar, which was going for its 14th CIF crown, was dealt its first loss in the Division II playoffs. Prior to Saturday the Sea Kings had been 19-0 all-time in the Division II playoffs, winning three straight titles from 1999-2001, as well as last year.

Chase and Marks each had two steals for Corona del Mar, and Marks won all four quarter-starting sprints.

O'Dea said the future remains bright for the Sea Kings, as he will have 16 juniors coming back. But, for the seniors, it was a tough way to end a memorable season.

"It's been an amazing journey," Zepfel said. "This is the closest group of guys I've ever been with on a team. We've been so close for the past 10 months, basically. I wouldn't have traded it for anything. If I had the opportunity to do this all again, I would, with the same group of guys."

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