Twenty-one Division VI teams began a journey two weeks ago and only two remain. One of them happens to be the No. 1 team, and it calls the valley home.
They are Palm Desert, and while the Aztecs stand at 28-1 overall, undefeated Malibu stands in the way of a CIF Division VI championship. It would be the Aztecs’ first.
On Saturday Palm Desert puts it all on the line at the Woollett Aquatics Center in Irvine (5:30 p.m.). Players and coaches have stayed cautiously optimistic all season, taking a one-game-at-a-time approach and never losing sight of the ultimate goal.
“From the beginning of the season, we knew we had it in us to go all the way to CIF (finals),” said senior goalie Zack Rhodes. “There were times that games were close, but even if we did lose a player to fouls or being out, we had others who know how to fill in. Everyone stepped up for each other.”
From the long-reaching Rhodes to the scoring standouts Grant Stein, a senior, and freshman Ryan Sawyer, the Aztecs are spread across the board with talent at every level. Add in Auggie Sullivan, Michael Van Wieren and a host of others and Palm Desert remains the one to beat.
Palm Desert is No. 1 for a reason, rolling through the season, with the only loss to 2012 CIF champ and Desert Valley League foe, La Quinta.
“With that loss to La Quinta, it put it in perspective that we can’t win every game, so we have to work twice as hard,” Rhodes said.
Coach Greg Garczynski said that journey began back in the summer and the tough tournament schedule early in the season.
“We’ve moved forward week by week,” said Garcyznski. “They’ve dug deep after each time and stayed focused. The work ethic has always been there. They just showed they really wanted it and given the way the league was set up, we were going to have a chance. The goal was trying to get the team to be the strongest, physically and mentally.”
Palm Desert has been strong on offense, blowing out opponents even into the playoffs. There’s been a couple of close matches in the regular season, against Arroyo Grande, Irvine and Thousand Oaks, all one-goal victories.
The Aztecs’ defense has been equally adept.
With Rhodes in goal and Stein starring on both sides of the pool, helped out by timely play from Sawyer, Sullivan, Van Wieren, Andrew Wahlstrom or Michael O’Toole, Palm Desert will match up well against the Sharks. The team had an opportunity to check out Malibu when it played La Quinta in Wednesday’s semifinals.
“They do have a couple of players who are a little smaller and can get past our defenders,” Stein explained. “They have tricks up their sleeve and strong counter attacks. They have a good hole set and great balanced shooters around the perimeter.”
Palm Desert has a balanced attack and if Malibu drops off on coverage, leaves anyone in the field for the Aztecs open, Palm Desert won’t hesitate to take the shot.
“If they leave a guy up top, it’s going to be dangerous because we have a whole combination of players (who can score),” Garczynski said. “They’re going to have to make a decision. We are a more balanced team. We’re probably a lot more offensive than other teams. We’ve got more shooters than they have. They’ve got fast guys who can play defense, but what kind of offense do they have?”
Palm Desert will find out Saturday night.