The La Verne women’s water polo team used a strong defensive second half to pull away from Whittier and get its first Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference victory of the season Wednesday, 10-6.
La Verne continued SCIAC play after six consecutive non-conference games.
“The difference today is that we finished our power plays,” head coach Pat Beemer said. “We were super efficient in earning power play opportunities over the weekend but today we scored on them, that was a big deal.”
The Leopards co-hosted the Convergence Tournament last weekend with Pomona-Pitzer and Claremont-Mudd-Scripps.
La Verne lost all four of its games in the tournament – 14-7 to Fresno Pacific, 13-9 to Mckendree, 11-9 to Villanova and 9-7 to Sonoma State.
The start of Wednesday’s game did not look good for the Leopards either, as Whittier was able to score just 30 seconds into the game.
The Poets drew an exclusion penalty on La Verne and soon after put one through the net to take the early advantage.
La Verne turned the ball over a few times after the Whittier goal, but settled down soon after.
La Verne’s first goal came when freshman attacker Jassmine Kezman stole the ball from Whittier.
Off the steal, junior goalie Shelby Garcia found senior center Jasmine Bustamante with a long pass behind the Whittier defense, and she was able to beat the goalie to tie the game at 1-1, with five minutes to go in the first period.
The Leopards were active on defense, getting their hands on the ball and forcing the Poets into turnovers with their pressure.
But after an exclusion penalty on Bustamante, Whittier was able to capitalize and score another goal to take a 2-1 lead with three minutes left in the first period.
Following another Whittier goal, La Verne was able to net two goals from junior attacker Emily Mena and Kezman in less than a minute to tie the game, 3-3.
After a save by Garcia, Bustamante put the Leopards up 4-3 just before the first period ended.
“We have been preaching to the girls, it’s a process,” assistant coach Robert Echeverria said. “We had some tough games this past weekend and we were able to build from that.”
Whittier controlled the ball to start the second period and were able to advance the ball on three passes and score a goal in the first 17 seconds.
Less than a minute later, Kezman set up Bustamante for a goal and that gave La Verne the lead back, 5-4.
Bustamante would add another goal about three minutes later off an assist from junior driver Victoria Mezack to put the Leopards ahead by two, 6-4, with four minutes to play in the half.
The Poets cut the lead to one after a turnover by La Verne.
The miscue gave Whittier an easy one-on-one shot attempt which led to a goal and got them back into the game.
Just before the half ended, Garcia saved a goal and passed the ball to the other side of the pool where Mena was able to draw a penalty.
Kezman took the five meter penalty for La Verne and that gave the Leopards a 7-5 lead at halftime.
In the second half, La Verne came out and dominated on the defensive side and forced Whittier into multiple turnovers.
The Leopards pressured Whittier and did not allow them to take great shots, forcing them into deeper shots and shots that were late in the shot clock.
La Verne used its defense to initiate its offense. The Leopards were able to get on their power play off turnovers and have advantages on offense.
La Verne would add another three goals in the third period while holding the Poets to just one in the whole second half.
“Communication is key for us,” Kezman said. “If we do not communicate, then it’s just a big mess.”
Garcia came up big for La Verne.
She had 14 saves and had a .700 save percentage for the game.
Her ability to stop deeper shots allowed the Leopards’ defense to sag off and pack in front of the net, making shots more difficult for Whittier.
“Our goalie had a fantastic game,” Beemer said. “We are confident in her taking away perimeter shots which allow us to help down and play zone defense.”
Garcia credited Beemer with teaching her angles and how to position herself properly in certain situations to defend against the deeper shots.
“That is a key component in blocking balls,” Garcia said. “It makes my job a lot easier knowing where I am supposed to be.”
With the win, La Verne moved to 2-6 overall and 1-1 in SCIAC play.
The Leopards continue conference play at 11 a.m. Saturday at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps.
Mark Acosta can be reached at email@example.com.