Sarah Van Buskirk
A sudden death nail-biter ended with a spirited celebration for the La Verne men’s water polo team as they gained a senior day win against the Austin College Kangaroos, 16-15, Saturday morning at the La Verne Aquatic Center.
Head coach Pat Beemer said the roller coaster of a game came from communication breakdowns that were frustrating in the moment, but it was all about trusting the defense.
“For a lot of that game we were doing things better than they (Austin) were but not winning,” Beemer said. “It was just a matter of cleaning up our six-on-five that kind of helped us tie in regulation.”
The Leopards made their final appearance for the season at Las Flores Park with the sun shining, compared to Wednesday’s shivering 8-6 loss to Claremont-Mudd-Scripps. With about 30 people in attendance, some were specifically in support of the graduating Leopards as they held encouraging handmade signs.
La Verne will be sending off senior attackers Alam Chang, Brandon Pham and Gage Unsoeld, who were playing in the last home game of their college careers.
“I’ve learned so much and improved so much,” Pham said. “I could blame Coach Beemer and Gage and Alam because they just want to teach me and make me better.”
Prior to the initial sprint, the announcer introduced the three seniors as they were escorted by their family and friends. Spectators learned the players’ future plans and listened to a heartfelt message the seniors had for their teammates. Laughs and awws floated around the pool deck as everyone experienced a sincere moment for the Leopards.
Off the starting whistle, graduate student center James Cano made a big impression after he placed the ball in the cage, back-to-back, assisted from passes by Chang and junior center Peter Trinh to open the scoring floodgates, 2-0.
The Leopards came out with fierce energy as they held the Kangaroos scoreless for most of the quarter until junior attacker Max Wade ripped out of the water in the center to put Austin on the board, 2-1. That sparked some momentum as the Kangaroos tied the game on their next offensive drive.
However, Chang got the last word after he received a pass from the far side and drove it into the net to end the quarter with the Leopards on top, 3-2.
In the second quarter, the Leopards had fallen behind as the Kangaroos outscored them, 4-1. That one La Verne point came from Trinh’s rocket during a power play in the final seconds of the half.
Throughout the match, the Leopards dug themselves into a deeper deficit when they could not clear the ball after graduate student goalkeeper Joe Lamson made incredible saves.
“We were just not communicating defensively on who we should be going to and who we should be knocking down,” Unsoeld said. “And also who we need to pick up when we transition from offense to defense.”
After a regroup in the locker rooms, Austin kicked off the second half with a goal off a rebound from a prior shot-on-goal that brought the score to 7-4.
The third quarter called for a slight comeback when Trinh and Unsoeld racked in three points, and the defense held the Kangaroos to only a 5-meter penalty shot, which pushed the score to 8-7. A fingertip save was recorded for Lamson.
Despite the considerable efforts from the Leopards’ offense, the Kangaroos remained in the lead going into the final quarter, 11-8.
In the fourth quarter, the Leopards used their timeouts and strategically set up their offensive plays, which worked in their favor as they outscored the Kangaroos, 5-2, ending with Trinh launching out of the water for a crowd-roaring tie with 40 seconds left in regulation.
The score was 13-13 going into overtime, which is two three-minute quarters followed by a sudden death if the score remains tied.
Sudden death was what was in the cards for the Leopards as two points were scored by each team in the first overtime, resulting in a 15-15 tie and second overtime was quiet as neither team put up a point.
With two minutes left in sudden death, the Leopards gained a power play after the exclusion of senior attacker Nico Masso. With a man up, Chang received the pass on the opposite side of the post and drilled the ball in the back of the net to gain an exciting win, with the final score of 16-15. It was a full-circle moment for Chang, ending his senior game with a winning shot.
“At the end of the day we knew we were the better team and it was just up to us to prove that,” Chang said.
The Leopards traveled to Pomona-Pitzer on Wednesday, where they lost to the Sagehens, 18-13.
La Verne’s overall record is 7-20 and they remain 0-10 in Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference play. The Leopards travel to Occidental at 11 a.m. Saturday for their season finale.
Sarah Van Buskirk can be reached at email@example.com.