LAKE FOREST — Each step deeper into the CIF Southern Section Division V playoffs for St. Francis High water polo put the squad into uncharted waters.
The team excelled and enjoyed success in the early rounds of the playoffs. However, in the division semifinal against Trabuco Hills at El Toro High on Wednesday, the Golden Knights had trouble overcoming the Mustangs’ defense.
The Golden Knights were held scoreless in the second quarter and faced a two-goal deficit at the end of the first half, as the Mustangs forced turnovers and intercepted numerous St. Francis passes.
At the start of the second half, however, the St. Francis offense came alive and stayed toe-to-toe with Trabuco Hills, fluctuating between a one- or two-goal defecit throughout the third quarter.
But the rally ultimately came up short, as Trabuco Hills responded to every Golden Knights goal in the final quarter, leading to a 9-7 loss on the road, denying upstart St. Francis a berth in the division championship.
“They had good defense and if you make little mistakes, it’s going to be magnified, and that’s what happened today,” St. Francis coach Carlos Ponce said.
The No. 2 Golden Knights (30-4; fourth in Mission League), who earned an at-large playoff berth, embarked on its deepest playoff run since the program returned in 2015.
St. Francis opened the postseason with a 21-7 win against Cathedral, followed by a 19-7 victory against Buena Park in the second round and a 9-8 quarterfinal triumph over Burroughs in the quarterfinals.
“In the five years of existence, every game is different and it’s something we’ve never experienced before,” Ponce said. “I think it has a lot to do with our youth. We have one senior, a couple of juniors and a bunch of sophomores. ... Hopefully, after the game today, we came move past this and grow from this. That’s all you can do.”
St. Francis’ Jason Alietti and Robert Allieti each scored a hat trick, while goalkeeper and lone senior Cole Marston tallied 12 saves, with nine coming in the first half to keep it a two-goal match after two quarters. Golden Knights junior Jack Wilson had two assists.
Trabuco Hills, which advanced to its first division final under fourth-year coach Ryan Mock, was led by Dillion Davis, who scored a hat-trick and had one assist. The Mustangs also received a pair of goals from Noah Crouse.
After Jason Alietti tied the score at 1 early in the first, the Golden Knights struggled to protect the ball as a pair of goals from Davis gave the Mustangs (22-7; at-large from the Sea View League) a 3-1 lead with 3:04 left in the opening quarter.
“We had the motivation and confidence,” said Jason Alietti, a sophomore. “We came in expecting a good game, which it really was. It was hard-fought through all four quarters. More emotions were brought out each quarter, but we knew it would be tough. We knew from the beginning that they would have their guys, we would have ours and we would go head on.”
Marston blocked three shots to calm the Mustangs’ offensive at the end of the first quarter and into the second quarter, but a goal from Crouse at 5:42 in the second gave Trabuco Hills a 4-2 lead.
The Mustangs defense continued to overwhelm the Golden Knights as consecutive turnovers gave Trabuco Hills two opportunities to score, but Marston registered back-to-back saves to maintain the 4-2 score at the half.
“It was a pretty solid couple of first possessions for us,” Mock said. “From there, it was just something that we were able to recognize who their threats were, and from there, read their weak side and realize our mistakes in the third quarter. We fixed them in the fourth and we were successful with it.
“I’m very proud of these guys. They worked hard to get here and knowing that the team defense came together and saved the win, I’m just proud of these guys.”
Jason Alietti, the Golden Knights’ second-leading scorer behind brother Robert, cut the Trabuco Hills lead to 4-3 at the start of the third quarter after St. Francis came out of a quick timeout.
The Mustangs restored their two-goal advantage with a goal from Luke Walters with 3:02 left in the third. Robert Alietti made it a 5-4 score 30 seconds later after he picked up a rebound on a shot from teammate Jack Murphy.
Trabuco Hills scored with 1:07 left in the third with a goal from Ethan Bergen, but Jason Alietti again cut it back to one-goal deficit, 6-5, just before the end of the quarter.
After a goal from Bergen early in the fourth, St. Francis again came within one goal with Robert Alietti’s third score to make it 7-6 with 4:47 left.
Davis completed his hat trick with 3:28 remaining as the Mustangs scored off a counter for an 8-6 advantage.
With 2:36 remaining, Jaren Sin scored off a lob pass from Robert Alietti to made it an 8-7 deficit before Walters added in a goal with 2:15 left to seal the Mustangs’ trip to the final.