SHERMAN OAKS — The St. Francis water polo team journeyed through rough patches since the program restarted five years ago, and Golden Knights coach Carlos Ponce made sure to remind the players just how far they have come.
In a CIF Southern Section Division V boys’ first-round playoff match against Cathedral on Tuesday, the second-seeded Golden Knights got off to a slow start and trailed early in the first quarter. Ponce called a timeout as, the Phantoms looked poised to take control with a one-goal lead.
St. Francis came out of the timeout, scoring four unanswered goals en route to a 21-7 victory against Cathedral at Sherman Oaks Notre Dame High.
“Being the first round, they were a little nervous,” Ponce said. “Cathedral is well put together and they had nothing to lose. I think we were just thinking ahead. Everything was short. Our shots were long. Our passes were off and our mentality wasn’t there. I just think the jitters got to us.
“We called timeout to let them relax and breathe. But then we asked what we were looking at and what was going on. I told them, ‘You’re here for a reason — remember that. You’re in the second seed for a reason — remember that. Show them why we are.’ They slowly started getting it going.”
The first-round victory marks the first playoff win for the program, which is in its fifth year after the team was cut in 1996. The first year of the water polo program in 2015 competed on the junior varsity level.
“Our main focus at the beginning of the year was to make CIF,” Ponce said. “Now that we’re here, it’s icing on the cake for us. But, now, we’re not satisfied with just making it. Today was our first statement and saying that we’re here for a reason, so now we’re going to start pushing it. It’s a great feeling for the fans, a great feeling for the community and a great feeling for the parents and players.”
The Golden Knights’ offense was powered by junior Robert Alietti, who scored 10 goals with a first-quarter hat-trick that gave St. Francis a 5-3 lead at the end of the quarter. St. Francis junior Jack Wilson added four goals and goalkeeper Cole Marston made eight saves.
Cathedral was led by Daniel Hernandez with four goals.
“We felt like if we could just try to keep it competitive for the first quarter, then we have a chance to win,” Cathedral coach Juan Salais said. “We did and we tried to keep up, but the biggest issue was a lot of our kids are young. We have two freshmen starting, and when one of our best players got his third ejection, that’s when it really started [to hurt].”
Alietti put St. Francis (26-3; at-large from the Mission League) on top with a goal 12 seconds in, but Cathedral (5-6; No. 3 Valle Vista League) clawed back to take a 2-1 lead midway into the first quarter.
The teams traded goals before Daniel Hernandez gave the Phantoms a 3-2 lead with 2:35 left in the first.
“Coach just told us we needed to lock in our defense,” Alietti said. “It was just a team effort that we had to lock in. We had to get our offense going and we were missing looks, we held it, we were hesitant to play and I think it was just first-time jitters.”
After Wilson tied it at 3 at 2:25, Ponce gathered the team to get the group organized.
Alietti scored twice at the end of the first quarter and added two more at the start of the second to give St. Francis a 7-3 lead with 6:10 left in the half.
“We just talked about finding our early opportunities,” Alietti said. “Every time we could get open on the counter, it was just a good opportunity for us. We have speed and that’s just what was working. Otherwise, we slowed it down and pull it out to work toward your advantage.”
The Golden Knights received a goal from Noel Gutierrez before Hernandez stopped the St. Francis scoring run with 2:38 left in the second for a 8-4 score.
Wilson negated Hernandez’s goal with 1:14 left to give St. Francis a 9-4 halftime advantage.
The Golden Knights started the second half with a pair of goals from Alietti and his younger brother, Jason, for an 11-4 lead at 4:05 in the third.
Goals from Noah Sauers-Mo and Hernandez returned it to a five-goal deficit for Cathedral with 3:25 left in the third, but another pair of goals from the Alietti brothers lifted St. Francis, 13-6.
After a goal from Hernandez at 2:01 in the third, the Alietti duo scored twice in the final two minutes of the third frame to take a 15-7 lead into the fourth.
Two goals from Wilson and one each from Jack Murphy, Aaron Peterson, Jaren Sin and Connor Macho capped a six-goal fourth quarter for St. Francis, as the Golden Knights kept the Phantoms scoreless in the final seven minutes.