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There are a lot of smart, knowledgeable coaches and parents associated with the Long Beach Poly boys’ water polo program, but all of them were stumped by one question Saturday afternoon: when was the last time this happened? Everyone agreed that the Jackrabbits’ decisive 18-8 victory over Pasadena Poly in the CIF Southern Section quarterfinals was historic. Just how historic is anybody’s guess.
“I literally don’t know the last time this program was in the semifinals,” said Poly coach Ish Pluton. “No idea.”
Poly hadn’t previously made a quarterfinal since at least 1979. The Jackrabbits won their 11th CIF-SS title way back in 1929, and haven’t appeared in a championship game since then, so this Wednesday’s semifinal on the road against Portola might be Poly’s first appearance this deep in the playoffs in 92 years.
“Yeah it’s sick, everyone’s so hyped,” said Poly captain Beau Wade. “But this is where we have to stay the most composed now, this is where our practice has to be more focused than ever.”
The quarterfinal against the Panthers was by far Poly’s biggest test of the playoffs, against a talented team that was hungry to upset the top-seeded Jackrabbits. Poly’s offensive execution wasn’t crisp to start the game, as they missed a chance to score on their first two man-up opportunities, needing penalty tries for their first two goals. A pair of scores from the Panthers tied the game 2-2, a position Poly hadn’t found itself in this year.
But goalie Charlie Lemmis and the rest of the Poly defense turned in another stellar effort, keeping Pasadena Poly from taking the lead while the team got their eggbeaters underneath them on offense. The Jackrabbits got a pair of goals from Wade and Tyler Oatey on a long-range shot at the end of the first quarter to go up 4-2.
“When we’re struggling to score I just know I have to really be dialed in and focused,” said Lemmis, who had six saves, three steals, three assists, and a goal in the win. “I know that we’ll get going eventually so it’s up to me and the defense to make sure we’re still in it.”
Poly took over in the second quarter as Chaz Pruett had two of his team-high four goals, and Lemmis distributed the ball with pinpoint precision on counter-attacks. Poly outscored the Panthers 6-3 to take a 10-5 lead into halftime.
A 5-1 third quarter slammed the door, and let Pluton once again sub reserves into the game in the fourth quarter, a remarkable feat in a quarterfinal round of the playoffs. Once again, Poly’s starters sat on the bench and cheered just as loudly for the reserves who were in and scoring as those bench players cheered the starters during the first half.
“We’re all brothers,” said Pruett. “We all hang out after practice, we’re all going to the dance tonight. I think that bond helps us in the water, it helps us connect on offense and on defense.”
Pluton, an alum of the Jackrabbits program, said that relationship between his team is what makes coaching them so rewarding.
“It’s just pride, so much pride to coach a team of incredible teammates that clearly want to get each other goals, that want to make that extra pass,” he said. “This team is a coach’s dream.”
Pluton has been doing a great job pulling the strings alongside assistant coach Ryan Rockenbach, also a Poly alum. The Jackrabbits have won their first three games of the playoffs by a combined score of 58-21. Pluton has done an excellent job of balancing when to coach strategy versus when to coach emotion, as well as handling the vagaries of a deep playoff run for the first time, with a condensed playoff schedule.
“So what’s really cool being at Poly is that there’s tons of brilliant coaches that have gone on these deep playoff runs,” he said. “So I’m talking to (Poly football coach Stephen) Barbee, I’m talking to coach Dodge, I’m talking to coach Buggs. And they’re all giving me really good advice, and everyone’s rooting for us and behind us. It makes me feel really good.”
Poly was led by Pruett (five goals, three steals), Wade (four goals), Reece Hammond (three goals, two steals), Markus Cruz (one goal, four assists), and Lemmis, who capped a great day in goal with a goal of his own late in the game.
“I saw their goalie come out of the cage to try and score and I knew it was my moment,” he said. After making the safe, he fired a pool-length shot that banged the canvas for a score. “I’ve been waiting for that all season.”
The Jackrabbits will try to keep the playoff magic rolling as they visit Portola High in Irvine on Wednesday in the semifinals.