Defense leads La Canada water polo to title match

IRVINE — With its offense having become a hopeless cause by the fourth quarter, defense became the saving grace for the La Cañada High boys’ water polo team in its CIF Southern Section Division III semifinal match against Palos Verdes on Wednesday at William J. Woollett Aquatics Center in Irvine.

The top-seeded Spartans took a three-goal lead into the fourth after leading by more than twice as much at one point, and only scored once in the final period, after doing the same in the third, but held the Sea Kings to just one goal of their own over the final 8:39 to hang on for an 11-8 win.

“We played great defense today, all around it was a full team effort on all fronts,” said La Cañada Coach Devon Borisoff, who got 16 saves from goalkeeper Jeff Lee, as well as four goals apiece from Symeon Stefan and Alden Geller. “Jeff Lee had a great game in the cage for us, which we definitely needed. We watched a lot of videos on these guys all week, we prepared for it, we knew what we were going to do and we prepared to stop it and we did a great job of doing so.”

La Cañada will play Martin Luther King in the championship match on Saturday at 11:45 a.m. at the same venue.

“This is what we’ve been working for the last five or six years,” Stefan said. “It’s a wonderful feeling.”

The fourth quarter remained scoreless for nearly the first four minutes, as both teams came up empty on several opportunities. Tyler Megginson misfired on a man-advantage opportunity early in the quarter for Palos Verdes, while La Cañada’s Johnny Louk had his one-on-none breakaway shot stopped by Sea Kings goalkeeper Kyle Buch (10 saves) before teammate Bryce Hopkins hit the cage on a man-advantage opportunity with 3:16 left.

Palos Verdes (23-6) broke the stalemate on a counter-attack off Hopkins’ miss, as Megginson took the ball himself all the way up the right side for a transition goal that cut the lead to 10-8 with 3:10 left.

The Sea Kings would be forced to shoot from distance against the shot clock on the their next possession, the second time in their last three trips down that the Spartans would deny them an opening to shoot for 30 seconds. La Cañada (20-8) responded by getting a crucial insurance goal from Hopkins, his second tally of the match, with 1:13 left.

Palos Verdes was forced into another contested perimeter shot with 49 seconds left and saw its final chance, a shot on goal by James Robinson with 19 seconds left, saved by Lee.

“It got a little scary,” Stefan said of the final minutes. “[Robinson] was a very good player; he countered hard every single time. It was just a matter of getting in front of him and making sure he couldn’t win them the game.”

La Cañada pushed its lead to a match-high at 10-3 by scoring with 4:36 left in the third on a Geller tally amid a man-advantage, but it would be the last goal of the period for La Cañada, which saw its lead shrink down to 10-7 on the first real run of momentum enjoyed by the Sea Kings.

The Spartans’ defense was weakened by three ejections in the third period and the Sea Kings scored on each of them, beginning with a Robinson score from the perimeter with 4:16 left. Luke Ceverha followed with a mid-range skip shot at the 2:40 mark and Zack Trotter scored on a man advantage with 2:03 remaining.

The Spartans went in set to Hopkins on their next three possessions, but came up empty on all three, as Buch saved two and another hit the crossbar.

“That’s water polo sometimes,” Borisoff said. “They switched up and we got a little lax there in the third quarter and stopped playing offense for a few possessions. You gotta keep playing, it’s never over. We stopped playing offense and that really hurt us, we couldn’t get it going again there for a little while.

“We got a lot of point-blank shots out of set there during that time, their goalie was playing great.”

Trotter brought the lead down to 10-7 with 1:39 left in the third when he got an offensive rebound of a man-advantage miss and converted.

“We came out hard, got a lot of goals, but at the end we kind of let up,” said Lee, who prevented the damage from being even greater with six saves in the third. “We thought we had it a little bit.”

It was a stunning momentum swing for a team that was rolling throughout the first half and scoring from all angles.

After getting on the board at the 5:48 mark of the first quarter on Stefan’s five-meter conversion, the Spartans missed their next two shots from the field, but began to get on track offensively when Stefan scored for a 2-0 lead on a beautiful spin move off the left block followed by a soft lob over the goalkeeper at the 3:45 mark.

Hopkins added to the lead on La Cañada’s next possession when he took a pass into set from Geller and scored on a quick turnaround shot. With 1:35 to play in the quarter, the Spartans got three shots out of one man-advantage possession, as Geller’s initial attempt hit the crossbar, and Peter Loakes’ follow-up was saved before Loakes got his own rebound and drove it home for a 4-0 lead, forcing a Sea Kings timeout.

Lee notched a save on a man-advantage out of the break and although Palos Verdes got its first goal at the 43-second mark on a lob by James Robinson, La Cañada closed the quarter strong with a Geller goal from the perimeter with 20 seconds left.

Palos Verdes traded goals with La Cañada to open the second quarter and stay within 6-2, but the Spartans scored the next three goals unanswered to open up a comfortable 9-2 with 1:17 to play in the second half.

Stefan scored twice in the quarter between the 4:19 and 3:44 mark, on a short pass off a quick pass up the pool from Chase Borisoff followed by a deep fadeaway lob to make it 8-2. Louk scored on a lob at the 1:17 mark to give the Spartans their biggest lead of the first half, 9-2.

“When we’re up on offense like that we seem to focus so much on defense that we don’t play offense,” Stefan said. “A lot of times we didn’t even get down to [the offensive] side of the pool and it’s something we need to work on for the finals.”

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