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First-year head coach Charles Wright wasn’t sure the last time the Lakewood girls’ water polo program advanced to the second round of the CIF playoffs.
“At least a decade,” Wright said prior to Thursday’s game against Malibu.
About an hour later, Wright was triumphantly raising his arms to the Lancers’ home crowd, celebrating a rare home playoff win. His dedicated, senior-laden group had just punched its ticket to the CIF-SS Division 5 quarterfinals with a 10-5 win over the Sharks.
“This team is special,” said an emotionally drained Wright after the win. “We have a group of seniors this year that, when I came in here, I didn’t have to do any team-building or any of that. They love each other. We had a full month of December off due to COVID and we couldn’t play at all, and these girls just rallied. This has been beyond special.”
Junior Brooke Baze led the Lancers with five goals on the night, while senior Carah Beaird added a hat trick and Gracie Isaacson put home a pair. Baze scored the first two goals of the night in just 75 seconds, helping Lakewood get out to a great start in their home pool.
“It definitely helped scoring the first two goals, that definitely boosted my confidence for the rest of the game,” Baze said. “It was really fun to play with the seniors for what could be our last games together. I’ve never been to CIF before, so it was really cool to make it, and then make it to the second round and now I’m excited to go to Saturday’s game.”
Despite the quick start, Lakewood found itself trailing 4-3 at halftime. After their first two shots went into the goal, the Lancers struggled to get it past Malibu goalie Charlie Flores, who racked up 12 saves including a pair of stops on five-meter penalties.
With the Lancers trailing going into the second half, the difference came from their defense, and especially their goalie. Senior Danny Sgontz was terrific in the cage, recording 11 of her 17 saves in the second half to hold Malibu to just one goal over the final 14 minutes of play.
“I’m very stoked that we got the win,” said Sgontz after the game. “These two CIF games that we’ve played are probably the best I’ve played this whole season. It was getting pretty close for a second, so it was kind of intimidating, I’m not gonna lie. But I had faith in my team and I had faith in myself to play with confidence and for our whole team to play with confidence, and we pulled it together.”
Lakewood scored the first three goals of the second half–two off of forced turnovers and one on a man-up opportunity–to restore a two-goal advantage. The Sharks would pull back to within one with their only second-half goal, leaving it a 6-5 game headed to the fourth.
With very little playoff experience on the roster, the Lancers found themselves in a nail-biter with their season on the line. Lakewood responded like seasoned vets, winning the final quarter 4-0 to pull away for an emphatic win. When asked where the team was able to summon the confidence and composure to close out the win, Sgontz credited her head coach.
“Honestly, I have to give that one to Coach Charles,” she said. “Before every game, every practice, his famous quote is ‘Lock it in and keep it tight.’ So throughout the season, I’ve really tried to keep it tight and keep it locked in. Knowing that this could have been our last game, I had to give it my all.”
In the end, the Lancers proved to be the better team and deserving of a trip to the quarterfinals. It certainly won’t be easy, as Lakewood will travel to play top-seeded Corona Centennial on Saturday.
But for tonight, it was a special moment for the program and for the senior class. Beaird put into words how much a home playoff win meant to her and her teammates.
“It’s more than anyone can imagine,” said Beaird. “This is my first time in CIF and to win in the first round, then win the second round and have it be a home game is just incredible. I was sick for our first few home games, so this is my first real home game besides the alumni game, so the feeling is just incredible.
“To be a senior, my first home win, it’s just … I’m on top of the world right now.”