WALNUT — At times battling itself as much as its opponent, the Glendale High boys’ water polo team was far from perfect at Wednesday evening’s CIF Southern Section Division V semifinal playoff match at Mt. San Antonio College.
The problem for Walnut High, and for Los Altos come Saturday, is that even an imperfect Nitros team is downright difficult, if not unbeatable.
Glendale proved that by overcoming 20 turnovers and bouts of complacency in knocking off Hacienda League runner-up Walnut, 16-12, to return to the divisional championship for a second straight year.
The top-ranked Nitros (21-6) will face second-seeded Los Altos (21-10), the Hacienda League champion, for a third time this season in Saturday’s divisional championship game at 2:30 p.m. at Irvine’s William Woollett Jr. Aquatic Center.
The three-time defending Pacific League champion Nitros will also attempt to win a crown after just missing in last year’s 12-10 title game loss to Pasadena Poly.
“We relaxed today and that’s disappointing. When you build a five-goal lead, you’ve got to finish,” Glendale Coach Forest Holbrook said. “We eased off the pedal, but we’re going to learn from this and be ready Saturday.”
Glendale, which once owned a 6-1 advantage after a goal from utility player Manuk Piloyan (five goals, three steals and two assists) at the 5:08 mark in the second quarter, found its lead sliced to 12-10 with 1:45 left in the third quarter thanks to a goal from the Mustangs’ Esteban Martinez created off an assist from Jeffrey Silverberg.
While Glendale countered with a goal from Artak Arzumanyan (four goals, five assists and two assists) off an assist from Arman Momdzhyan with 18.8 seconds remaining, Walnut seemed to have all the momentum when Silverberg netted a goal just before time expired, which brought Walnut within 13-11 by the quarter’s close.
“Our boys battled. They really, really wanted this game and I’m so proud of how they fought,” Mustangs Coach Mike Rieben said. “They were really close and they gave everything they had.”
Walnut opened the fourth quarter forcing two Glendale turnovers and taking five shots on the team’s first three possessions.
Yet, Glendale survived the Mustangs’ flurry unscathed and answered back with both its defense and offense.
Momdzhyan threaded the needle on a spectacular seven-meter, left-to-right goal that split Mustangs defenders Scott McDill and Martinez and hit the corner of the net past the diving attempt of goalie Jonathan Ong-Siong (four saves).
The score came with 4:19 left, put the Nitros up, 14-11, and keyed a game-clinching 3-0 run.
Piloyan got into the act on Walnut’s ensuing offensive series when he stole possession from McDill and raced unabated for a goal with 3:55 remaining.
Finally, Glendale iced the contest on a rainy evening when the Mustangs were called for an offensive foul that immediately turned into a goal when Momdzhyan scored off an assist from Arzumanyan with 3:39 that put the Nitros ahead, 16-11.
“We had our matchups from the beginning of the game. We just had to stick with them,” said Momdzhyan, who led his team with five goals, five assists and five steals. “Once we got on our guys and we shut down [McDill], we knew we’d win.”
The contest appeared an early runaway as Glendale led, 4-1, after one quarter and took that five-goal advantage midway through the second quarter.
Yet, Walnut closed the second quarter with a 6-4 run and pulled within 10-7 at the half after a goal from McDill with 30 seconds remaining.
Glendale’s lead remained around the three-to-four goal threshold until late in the third.
Part of the reason Walnut was able to rally against Glendale came from the Mustangs’ ability to cash in opportunities as the squad converted three five-meter penalty tries and finished three for four on six-on-five chances.
By comparison, Glendale was two for six on man-advantage opportunities, while never getting a penalty shot.
“We didn’t play our best defense. That’s what we’re going to have to do better,” said Glendale goalie Daniel Sarkissian, who finished with six saves.
One big positive for Glendale may be the experience factor, as the team is 2-0 versus Los Altos this season, while having already been in a title game.
“We know Los Altos and they know us,” Piloyan said. “Plus, we really want to win a championship.
“We tried our best to forget about Poly, about last year, but you really can’t. You can only get over that loss with a win.”