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The Long Beach Poly boys’ water polo team hasn’t won a CIF Southern Section championship since 1929–and in the last 92 years, it’s hard to imagine the Jackrabbits have played in many games that were better or more thrilling than Wednesday evening’s semifinal nail-biter with Portola. The Jackrabbits led most of the game by never pulled ahead by more than a few.
After Portola tied the game with five minutes remaining, the two teams battled with no score for four minutes before Poly senior Beau Wade buried the game-winner with 51 seconds remaining. The goal lifted Poly to a 7-6 victory, and punched their ticket to Saturday’s Division 4 championship, where they’ll face Crespi at the Woollett Aquatic Center in Irvine (time will be announced on Thursday).
“I want to say that was fun, but my heart may say otherwise,” said Poly coach Ish Pluton. The Jackrabbits had a great road crowd in Irvine including water polo notables like Don Stoll, a Poly alum who was a legendary longtime coach at El Toro. “Knowing that people really care and love our program and want to see us do well, I can’t say how much that means to us–to be a part of that history. I’m the luckiest coach on Earth right now, at least that’s how I feel.”
“We’re ecstatic,” said Wade. “It’s hard to believe–we’re in the CIF Finals. You can’t even dream about stuff like that.”
It was a markedly better game than Poly’s first three playoff contests, all of which they won by at least ten goals. In this one, the Jackrabbits and Bulldogs played a scoreless first quarter, and didn’t see a goal scored until three minutes into the second, when Colin Soohoo scored for Poly on a man-up opportunity. Reece Hammond scored two goals in the last 25 seconds of the half after a five-meter penalty and then a steal gave him two quality chances.
The Jackrabbits led 3-0 at halftime but despite the excellent play of goalie Charlie Lemmis, the lead wasn’t safe as they only had a three-goal advantage. The Bulldogs rallied back in a wide-open third quarter, scoring four as Poly managed just two scores, as Wade and Chaz Pruett both banged home scores to give Poly a 5-4 lead headed to the fourth quarter.
Pruett put Poly up 6-4 early in the fourth on a man up, but Portola scored the next two, tying it up with 4:54 left in the game. The two high-quality defenses locked in after that, and battled for four minutes with no goals scored. Both coaches called timeouts with possession to try and set up a play, but neither found the net.
Finally, Poly earned an exclusion with less than a minute left, and Markus Cruz found Wade on the post for a one-timer score with 51 seconds left, giving the Jackrabbits a 7-6 lead.
“I was exhausted, and there was just this little opening, and we caught my guy slacking a little,” said Wade. “So I swam right to the post and gave Markus the eyes. It was perfect–he saw me and got it to me and I put it in.”
The game still wasn’t over for Poly, as they had to shut down two Bulldogs possessions. They stopped the first and then turned it over on a foul call by the official, giving the Bulldogs the ball back with 30 seconds left. Hammond played hero, swiping the ball cleanly away from the Portola player without a foul call, giving Poly the ball back with seven seconds left. They were able to run the clock out and punch the ticket to Woollett.
“It was such a fun game,” said Hammond. “We haven’t had a game like that, the crowd was amazing and we were all so pumped.”
Hammond credited bench player Mauro Santos for keeping the team pumped up throughout the game and with giving him some energy to make the acrobatic steal at the end of a draining game.
“We just really, really want to win it, and he helped keep us focused on that,” said Hammond.
Hammond, Wade, and Pruett led the way offensively with two goals apiece, with Soohoo adding another. Cruz had three assists, and Tyler Oatey led the way defensively with four steals. Lemmis had seven saves in the game for the Jackrabbits.