The women’s water polo season came to a close after falling to No.1 seeded Pomona-Pitzer, 9-8, in the semifinals of the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Championship on April 26 at Haldeman Pool.
Coming into the contest, the Leopards looked to take revenge on the Sagehens after losing to them 8-6 in their last match-up April 6.
The first quarter started with a bang, as sophomore attacker Jassmine Kezman scored in the first 30 seconds after winning the opening possession.
“We had nothing to lose honestly, we knew it could’ve been our last game so we came out strong,” Kezman said.
The opening quarter also proved to be very physical, with La Verne racking up four exclusions in the quarter. Having played them earlier this season, the Leopards knew how ‘grabby’ the Sagehens like to play and specifically tailored their practices to adjust to the physicality.
“We spent an entire week getting ready for this and we tried to get the girls used to not relying on the refs to bail them out,” head coach Pat Beemer said. “Compared to when we played them the first time I think we responded a lot better.”
The Sagehens would take advantage of the exclusions and after a hasty shot from the Leopard offense, Pomona-Pitzer would score on the counterattack, tying it up 1-1.
Despite the numerous Leopard fouls that led to Sagehen counterattacks, senior Shelby Garcia had another standout performance in the cage with 12 saves and a steal.
Despite goals from senior attacker Guarina Garcia and freshman defender Kelly Riedel, Pomona-Pitzer would trade the goals back to tie the game up, ending the first quarter 3-3.
La Verne once again won the sprint to open the second quarter and went straight to work, with senior attacker Victoria Mezack scoring off an assist from freshman attacker Sage Nowell, taking the lead 4-3.
Though Pomona-Pitzer answered back during a six-on-five power-play around the La Verne goal after Riedel was excluded. The Sagehens then took the lead 5-4, after a Leopard defensive miscommunication.
On the next possession the Leopards had a power-play in their favor and set up around the Sagehens’ goal and took advantage when Mezack managed to tip the ball toward junior center Ilene Guerrero, who shot it in to tie the game up 5-5.
But after clutch saves from Shelby Garcia, the Leopard defense began to crack, leading to a go-ahead Sagehen goal with two minutes to go in the half. While the Leopard defense managed to hold out, the offense was unable to muster any attack, ending the half 6-5, Pomona-Pitzer.
The Sagehens would win opening possession in the third quarter, but the Leopard defense would come up big once again. Guarina Garcia would take advantage of a six-on-five, ripping the ball into the Sagehen cage, evening up the score 6-6.
After another traded goal, it seemed that every time the Leopards tied the score, the Sagehens would be one step ahead to reclaim the lead. Despite another goal from Guerrero, the Leopards would end the quarter tied with the Sagehens at 7-7.
The Leopards came out aggressive in the fourth quarter, however a string of unfortunate plays would cripple them. After losing the opening possession, the Sagehens managed to steal the ball back and scored to take the lead 8-7 after a Kezman exclusion. The exclusion was Kezman’s third of the night, ejecting her from the game.
Still trailing by one point with only two minutes left, the Leopards went for broke, setting up around the Sagehen cage. But as the shot-clock counted down, Guerrero managed to sling the ball past the goalie, tying the game up 8-8 with little over a minute remaining.
Unfortunately for the Leopards, the Sagehens would once again answer, immediately reclaiming the lead, 9-8.
With only seconds left in the game the Leopards gave the ball to Guarina Garcia to take the final shot. However the First Team All-SCIAC senior would barely miss, the ball bouncing off the crossbar as the final buzzer sounded, ending the game 9-8, Pomona-Pitzer.
“Everyone played 110% and we executed well,” Kezman said. “There’s no reason to be sad. It was a well played game.”
Even though the team lost, players are still proud of the fight they put up and all they have accomplished this season, going from 5-9 in SCIAC last season to 9-5 this season and making the top four.
“It was a great journey, I must say that I really didn’t expect to enjoy it this much but I think this team has been amazing and even though we lost, I can’t be sad,” Guarina Garcia said.
“I think (the season) started off pretty rough but we started getting into our groove and figured out how to play together,” Shelby Garcia said. “Once we got momentum there was no stopping us and we’re ready to come back next year,”
The Leopard women’s water polo team will return to action next spring.
“I’m not happy this very second, but I just told the team, ‘I am so proud of the strides they took this year and we’re going to come back stronger next year’,” Beemer said.
Joey Matsuzawa can be reached at email@example.com.