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Long Beach Poly boys’ water polo coach Ish Pluton is dealing with a set of problems no person in his position has had to deal with for three quarters of a century. How much celebrating is too much celebrating? When do you sub the backups in? How do you keep your team from being overconfident?
The Jackrabbits hadn’t played in a second round playoff game since 1979 prior to Thursday’s trip to Don Lugo for a CIF-SS Division 4 contest–and they probably haven’t been so heavily favored this deep in a bracket since they last won a CIF-SS title, back in 1929. The top-seeded Jackrabbits certainly looked dominant in a 22-8 victory over the Conquistadors.
“It says a lot about equity in sports, and what it means to us that the CIF is giving us a shot (with this playoff format),” said Pluton. “I’m getting texts and calls from all these players and alums–everyone has so much pride in this program. But for the longest time it was like, you make the playoffs, you play Mater Dei in the first round. So to have this opportunity to compete at our level, it means so much to everyone.”
Pluton played for Poly and graduated in 2011, and assistant coach Ryan Rockenbach is a 2014 Poly alum. They’re coaches, but they’re also part of a large group of alums that are newly re-engaged with the program.
“We’ve expressed it to the boys, you’re doing something that all these guys who have graduated would have killed to do, and everyone’s so pumped for you that you’ve got this opportunity,” he said. “Rockenbach and I are both swelling with so much pride that we get to be a part of it.”
There was plenty to be proud of on Thursday, as Poly jumped out to a 3-0 lead and led 5-1 after the first quarter. Even with the team’s leading scorer, Reece Hammond, sidelined after a pair of exclusions, the Jackrabbits’ offense kept rolling. Chaz Pruett poured in six goals in the first half, and Poly led 10-4 at the break.
With Hammond returning in the third, Poly quickly slammed the door shut. Hammond scored four goals quickly, and the Poly bench received a yellow card for being overly demonstrative celebrating the fourth. Andres Flores put in a pair of goals after that, and Emerson LaPorta capped off a 7-0 third for Poly.
The Jackrabbits played reserves in the fourth quarter and still won the final frame 5-4.
Poly was even more dominant on the defensive end, where goalie Charlie Lemmis needed to make just seven saves in the first three quarters before coming out of the game. Tyler Oatey had nine steals in the game, something he credited Lemmis for helping him do.
“When you have a great goalie like Charlie it means you feel good taking a little bit more of a risk to go get the ball on a pass,” said Oatey. “When we’re pressing and getting turnovers it lets us get into our counter and that makes it easier to score.”
Oatey is more aware than most of the Poly aquatic legacy. His grandmother was a girls’ swimming coach at the school, and his entire family attended the school.
“It’s in my blood,” he said.
The Jackrabbits also got a hat trick from Colin Soohoo, and a pair each from Beau Wade, LaPorta, and Flores. In addition to his nine steals, Oatey had four assists and a block, and Markus Cruz had five assists.
The road gets a lot harder for the Jackrabbits in the next round as they travel to Pasadena Poly on Saturday for the quarterfinals.