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There was something very familiar about the way Wilson boys’ water polo approached the CIF Southern Section Division 1 quarterfinals on Saturday at Palos Verdes.
The Bruins made their name and won CIF championships by being the most aggressively confident team in the pool, and that’s exactly how they went on the road to beat Palos Verdes 15-7.
“You’ve got to come in with, not cockiness, but just that smooth focused confidence,” Wilson coach Jeff Nesmith said. “The guys had that. I saw the look on their faces before the game and I really trusted what I saw in their eyes when they showed up today.”
Nesmith and his coaching staff full of Wilson alums have made sure to remind their players of the Bruins history and style of play this month.
“The coaches always mention the old days and we’re definitely just trying to replicate those Long Beach Wilson bad boys,” Wilson senior Gray Carson said. “You just gotta hit them with the heat.”
Wilson certainly did that while taking a 5-0 lead after the first quarter. The game was relatively even after that, but the Bruins never took their foot off the gas pedal.
“That’s one our best games of the season,” Nesmith said. “They came out on fire. They held that intensity throughout and fought off a couple little surges and attempted comebacks. But the goals to stop those mini runs were a huge factor in the game to not let them get anywhere close.”
Carson scored a game-high seven goals while fellow senior Hank Rivers was impactful all over the pool with four assists, two goals, two steals and a field block. Goalkeeper Brady Simon finished with 11 saves.
“To be honest, it’s just one more step on the road and we just had to run them over,” Simon said.
Palos Verdes looked like it was ready for a fast start of its own by drawing a pair of exclusions on its first two possessions. But the first man advantage ended with a strong save by Simon, and when the goalkeeper was sent off on the second possession, the Bruins packed the cage and got the field block.
“That’s a big difference maker in the game momentum wise,” Nesmith said.
At the other end, Rivers got Wilson on the scoreboard with a deft lob shot. Dylan Walty then scored back to back shots from the outside to pad the lead. While Simon came up with two more point-blank saves, Cooper Zuanich and Carson scored the next two goals off Rivers assists to take a 5-0 lead into the second quarter.
“One of the main differences was our drive defense,” Simon said, comparing the first game between these teams about a month ago that Wilson won 10-8 after taking an early lead.
“We did things like hands up no matter what, heads above water and hips up,” Simon added. “That’s their main offense so they weren’t able to get by us.”
Aiden Olson got Palos Verdes on the board in the second quarter on his way to a team-high five goals, but Carson and Rivers answered every score.
“We knew we had to get that fast start,” Carson said. “Second quarter was 3-3 so without that lead we would’ve been tied and chasing the game. We had to come out hard and show them what we’re made of in the first quarter.”
Wilson led 8-3 at halftime, and while Palos Verdes pushed hard to get back into the game it got a bit chippy with multiple exclusions. Rivers picked up a pair of exclusions but got some help to keep his cool.
“We constantly remind each other that we need to stay in this game,” Hank said of his fellow seniors. “We’ve been here for four years together and we need to be in the pool to win this game.”
The teams went back and forth again in the third quarter while Wilson maintained its 12-7 lead.
“It’s the intense situations that bring us together and make our chemistry better,” Carson said. “In some games players are playing and wanting goals, but in a game like this its, ‘He’s open, get the goal’ and it doesn’t matter who scores it. You just want that lead.”
The big lead allowed the Bruins to run the fourth quarter clock down while Simon made a few big saves to hold Palos Verdes scoreless over the last eight minutes. Rivers was a huge factor on defense down the stretch.
“He was all over the place,” Nesmith said of Rivers. “He started us off with that first nice touch lob and played with a really hard defensive effort all game long. He had a no-quit attitude. He’s such a top swimmer and is getting to show he’s a great water polo player.”
All of the Bruins said the sizable and loud Wilson crowd was motivating before and during the game.
“I really didn’t expect the LBC to come out that hard,” Simon said of the crowd. “It means a lot to us and I know it means a lot to everybody supporting and watching.”
“It just shows how much support we have for water polo in Long Beach,” Carson added.
Wilson advances to the Division 1 semifinal for the first time since 2012 when the Bruins took on Loyola. The same schools will meet again on Wednesday at Woollett Aquatic Center in Irvine.
“We’re looking forward to letting these guys loose again,” Nesmith said. “It’s going to be exciting.”
“It’s everything we expected and more,” Simon said of the playoff wins. “We’re so glad we’re this far in. We’re going to get some more practice in, have some more spaghetti parties and keep moving.”
Intern Wiley Haga contributed to this report