Long Beach Poly Water Polo Wilson

Boys’ Water Polo: Wilson Finishes Strong To Beat Long Beach Poly

The562’s coverage of aquatic sports in Long Beach is sponsored by the Aquatic Capital of America Foundation.

The562’s coverage of Long Beach Wilson Athletics is sponsored by Joel Bitonio, Class of 2009.

The562’s coverage of Long Beach Poly is sponsored by Bryson Financial.

Words can’t really describe what it felt like in the Long Beach Poly natatorium on Wednesday night as the Jackrabbits hosted rival Wilson in what has effectively turned into the annual Moore League boys’ water polo championship.

“There were a couple moments when I thought my heart was going to jump out of my throat, but it was absolutely fun,” Poly coach Ish Pluton said. “The electricity was in the air for sure.”

The game was close and hotly contested throughout, but Poly led by two late in the third quarter before Wilson scored five of the last seven goals to emerge victorious 11-10. The win all but clinches a 16th consecutive league title for the Bruins. Both teams are heavy favorites in their final league games next week.

“That was awesome,” Wilson coach Zac Polmanteer said. “I really want to give a lot of props to Poly. They played really good water polo and crazy things happen in the Thunder Dome.” 

A boisterous capacity crowd at the Poly pool added to the already tense atmosphere after Poly snapped a history Wilson streak during swim season. Wilson captain Wyatt Mitchell said that absolutely had his team extra motivated.

“Both of my parents went to Wilson, and my dad coached at Wilson, so he knows like every alum since like 1985, so it’s amazing to be a part of that history,” Mitchell said. “It’s intense. It’s different. It’s not the same as any other game… We came out fired up and wanting to kill tonight.”

Mitchell scored a hat trick while Vaughn Baker and Samson Casem each scored twice for Wilson. Bruins goalkeeper Ace Dumont made eight saves.

Poly got a game-high four goals from Emerson LaPorta while Markus Cruz, Billy Cruz and Luke Cassiano each scored goals. Poly goalkeeper Sean Kerry was fantastic in the cage with 11 saves. 

“We started shooting nervous because he was playing great,” Polmanteer said of Kerry. “That Poly group created their own luck in that situation. And they’re not lucky, they’re good.”

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Mitchell opened the scoring early with a shot from distance, but Billy Cruz tied the game quickly for Poly on a nice assist from LaPorta. Casem scored to put Wilson up, and another Mitchell goal made it 4-2 at the end of the first quarter.

Counter attack goals from Markus Cruz and LaPorta tied the game before an exclusion goal from Cassiano put the Jackrabbits up 5-4. Poly also had a handful of field blocks to frustrate the Bruins, but Baker scored late in the quarter to make it 5-5 at halftime.

Kerry gave his team all the momentum when he saved a 5-meter penalty shot early in the third quarter, and then he made consecutive point-blank saves to set up a Poly run. 

“He’s ridiculous,” Pluton said of Kerry. “He’s had a giant growth spurt from last year to this year. He’s a good goalie in his own right, and now with that extra length… he was there for us tonight. He provided the energy with big stops that most goalies aren’t going to get.”

After a timeout, goals from LaPorta and Billy Cruz put Poly up 8-6 and showed the Jackrabbits that their approach to this game was working.

“I talked about what was going well and that we needed to continue to play green,” Pluton said about his timeout advice. “We have this thing where we want to play all in and not be afraid to lose, so we think of it like a stop light. Green is all in. Keep playing for each other. A couple of the boys had green dots on their wrists to remind themselves to play green. That was the main mantra of the game.”

Wilson then called a timeout to regroup, but the unexpected contribution of Baker changed the game. While the Bruins tried to attack on the right side, the freshman Baker came open and scored back-to-back goals to make it 8-8 headed to the fourth quarter.

“We were working that side, not necessarily working for (Baker), he just stepped right into that role,” Polmanteer said. “For a freshman to do that in this arena at this level speaks a lot to his skill and future.”

“I just knew to stay calm,” Baker said. “I saw that their defense wasn’t actually pressing us and I figured out the no-look shots worked really well. (This rivalry) is great and I’m excited for the next three years.”

Wilson asserted themselves defensively in the fourth quarter, and that opened up the chances to find new ways to score. In a flash, goals from Gavin Simon, Roni Rojas and Mitchell put the Bruins up 11-8.

“They looked to a couple different guys as options that they hadn’t been looking for most of the game,” Pluton said of Wilson’s fourth quarter execution. “That opened up those opportunities because we were playing a defense knowing their personnel, trying to slough off guys who we know aren’t ones to take the shots. Those guys, to their credit, were like, ‘No, we’re going to step up.’ They played really hard and found those guys and they found the back of the goal.”

Poly didn’t go quietly as late goals from Cassiano and Markus Cruz made it a one-goal game in the waning minutes, but the Bruins were able to play keep away to preserve the lead and the win.

“We just have to finish (goal opportunities) better because some of that is excitement, some of that is you’re overwhelmed, a lot is going on, you can’t hear your teammate right next to you, and it flusters you,” Polmanteer said. “I wasn’t surprised we went down, and I’m really happy we have that experience going into the postseason because that was a championship game. That is what a win or go home game feels like.”

After the postgame handshake, Polmanteer and Pluton shared a hug and a laugh. They’re both good friends and alumni of the program they’re coaching.

“Growing up in the program, and the same with Zac, we’re entrenched in it and we love it,” Pluton said. “We love the high level of competition. Of course, we want to knock off the team that’s been the number one in aquatics, and (Polmanteer) knows that and loves it. The more competitive our league is, the more fun it is. And that was a fun game.”

Both teams finish their league schedules next Wednesday as Poly travels to Jordan and Wilson hosts Cabrillo in games they both should win handily. The CIF Southern Section playoffs start Oct. 31.

VIDEO: Wilson vs. Long Beach Poly, Boys’ Water Polo
PHOTOS: Long Beach Poly vs. Wilson, Boys’ Water Polo
JJ Fiddler
JJ Fiddler is an award-winning sportswriter and videographer who has been covering Southern California sports for multiple newspapers and websites since 2004. After attending Long Beach State and creating the first full sports page at the Union Weekly Newspaper, he has been exclusively covering Long Beach prep sports since 2007.