Elise Stein wasn’t ready for her high school water polo career to end. Not just yet.
Still, the senior Palm Desert star and her teammates trailed La Canada 6-3 midway through the third period in Wednesday’s CIF Southern Section Division 5 semifinal match at Indian Springs High School.
But an unfamiliar pool and an unfamiliar situation didn’t phase Stein, who with 2:47 left in the third grabbed the rare rebound off a fellow Aztec’s shot, beating Spartan goalkeeper Carolyne Stern to the ball before whipping the ball around into a wide open net.
The scoreboard still read 6-4, but it was that type of second effort that encapsulated the Aztecs’ drive to make a third consecutive trip to Irvine for the CIF SS finals. Stein’s goal proved a massive momentum changer, kick-starting a 6-0 run to end Wednesday’s match for a 9-6 victory that gives the Aztecs a chance to avenge last season’s finals defeat.
“We just kept our determination up,” said Stein, who finished with a team-high four goals. “We kept fighting, and every time we got a chance to talk to each other, we told each other ‘Let’s keep pushing.’ We wanted this win so badly, and we never had a doubt.”
“At no point did we ever start to think ‘This is bad’ or ‘We might lose’ cause we knew we were going to keep on fighting,” Sarah Nichols said.
The Spartans proved a much tougher opponent than the Aztecs had faced in quite some time, especially early on. La Canada grabbed a 2-0 lead in the match’s first six minutes, and though Alissa Clyde responded with her first of two goals the following possession, Palm Desert stared at a 3-1 deficit after the first period.
Stein notched both of the Aztecs’ two goals in the second period, but at times the Aztecs struggled, getting forced into a half-court offense and forcing Stein into some wayward shots far from the net.
But head coach Michelle Valovic could see her team wasn’t panicked at halftime or after the Spartans’ second goal in the third. Her squad, held up by experienced, high-endurance swimmers, was ready for a championship-type fight.
“So much of the game is mental,” Valovic said. “Going into the second half down one, we were ready to push the pedal to the metal and give that extra energy cause we’ve put a lot of time in.”
After Stein’s gutsy goal, Megan Sawyer connected from long range the next time down the pool, and the Aztecs were down just one going into possibly the final seven minutes of their season.
But Savannah Clyde found Nichols breaking down the pool undeterred on the team’s second possession, and Nichols made Stern miss, fist pumping after she tied things up.
It would start a streak of four goals in four Aztec possessions, putting the top-seeded Aztecs firmly ahead, leaving the Spartans out of breath and out of hope.
Sure, the three-goal deficit had some fans and plenty of Aztec parents sitting on the edge of their seats, looking a little nervous, but Wednesday’s come-from-behind win played just into Valovic and Stein’s hopes.
A year ago, after running through the regular and postseason with relative ease, the top seed ran into adversity late in the championship against Los Altos and couldn’t respond. When and if that happens this Saturday in Irvine against Temple City, Stein knows she and her teammates will be mentally and physically ready to fight back for a second title in three years.
“I’m definitely glad we had this type of game going into the finals, because it really helped show us how to play as a team and communicate,” she said. “We came in wanting to be confident but not cocky, but this was a great match for us, and it showed us what we need to work on in these last few practices.”