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The Long Beach Poly boys’ water polo team has been swimming in uncharted waters for the last week as they’ve gotten deeper and deeper into the postseason. On Thursday night in Los Angeles, the Jackrabbits’ historic season came to an end as they lost a thrilling, evenly-matched game with Palisades, 11-10.
“They’re down right now because they were hoping to keep going,” said Poly coach Ish Pluton. “But they’re all going to be able to look back at the season and have absolutely no regrets–including that game. The sting of the loss is immediate, but the pride and the relationships will last the rest of their lives.”
The Jackrabbits had already claimed their first CIF-SS title in the sport since 1929, giving them 12 total in program history.
Palisades took a 1-0 lead to start the game, but the Jackrabbits held a slight advantage for almost the rest of the way. Poly’s offense was sharp in the first quarter, as Markus Cruz scored two of his team-high five goals in the opening frame, and Reece Hammond added a pair, including a long-range shot. Tyler Oatey scored on a man-up opportunity to make it 5-1 Jackrabbits after seven minutes.
The Dolphins made some defensive adjustments after that and were successful in zoning Poly’s attack, taking away a lot of the Jackrabbits’ normal top weapons. Palisades outscored Poly 4-1 in the second quarter to trail by just one goal at halftime.
“They did a good job of recognizing our tendencies and shutting some things down,” said Pluton.
After an even 2-2 third quarter, Palisades was able to even the score for the first time early in the fourth on a man-up. But Cruz scored his first goal on a beautiful assist from Hammond to give the Jackrabbits the lead back on the next possession. The two teams went back and forth with Palisades tying it again and Beau Wade going right back to give Poly a 10-9 lead.
But with 1:08 left in the game, Palisades’ Nathan Mejia scored to tie it, and then he scored again with 17 seconds left in the game to give the Dolphins their first lead since 1-0.
The Jackrabbits had one more shot at it, but the play was whistled dead on a pass inside two meters with just three seconds left, effectively ending the game, and Poly’s historic season.
Cruz led the Jackrabbits with five goals, while goalie Charlie Lemmis had 11 saves. Mejia led the Dolphins with four goals; Palisades advances to Saturday’s CIF State Division III Southern California Regional championship game on the road against Carpinteria.
There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the CIF Southern Section’s competitive equity format, and Pluton took time after the game to express his gratitude that the new format exists.
“I’m so deeply appreciative that these boys had this shot,” he said. “Under the old format, Wilson’s in Division 1 so our first round we’re on the road against Loyola. It’s not the same experience. They got a chance to compete against teams at their level and they overcame serious adversity this year and proved themselves champions.”