Despite getting a first round home matchup in the Division 4 boys water polo CIF Southern Section playoffs, Palm Desert was up against a tall task.
Because Rancho Cucamonga finished fourth in the Baseline League, versus the Aztecs’ second-place finish in the DVL, the Cougars had to hit the road as the No. 4 overall team in the division against the unranked Palm Desert squad.
Unfortunately, the advantage wasn’t quite enough. Despite holding tough late, pulling even 12-12 midway through the fourth period while down two starters, the Cougars defended their ranking by coming through with the final two goals to seal the 14-12 win, knocking the Aztecs out of the playoffs in the first or wild card round for the third consecutive year after winning a Division 6 title in 2013.
The fact it was that close, though, was something coach Michelle Valovic could live with.
“We were definitely expecting a tough challenge,” she said. “They had two really close losses to Bonita, who beat La Quinta by five.”
La Quinta, of course, ran through the DVL undefeated, beating Palm Desert twice by five combined goals.
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Things looked shaky at the beginning Tuesday night. The Cougars’ Austin Schoeller scored on the team’s first possession of the night, with his brother Hunter, who led both teams with 11 goals, notched his first of the night two possessions later. The Aztecs, on the other hand, created shots on their first four attempts but missed each time.
Palm Desert senior Ryan Sawyer finally got his team on the board midway through the first, but Hunter added another seconds before the first buzzer rang.
Both teams’ gunslingers, Sawyer and Hunter Schoeller, took over the second period to combine for eight of the 10 total goals scored before halftime. Three of Sawyer’s, who proved nearly impossible to defend one-on-one Tuesday night, came on penalty throw situations, propelling his team to come back from a 7-4 deficit midway through before Kenny Pineo’s goal evened the score right before the break.
With all the momentum on their side, though, the Aztecs still could never manage to grab a lead. Into the third, it was still the Cougars striking first and Palm Desert responding, with two coming from Brock Kunckle before Schoeller helped Rancho Cucamonga make some space with two late goals to take an 11-9 lead into the final period.
The result seemed all but official when the Cougars took a three-goal lead on their first possession of the fourth period, but still, Valovic’s squad didn’t give up. Sawyer’s final goal of his high school career, along with two more of Kunckle’s four goals on the night evened the score, for a matter of moments, before an answer put Rancho Cucamonga back ahead the possession after for good.
Without Sawyer’s barrage of goals in the second period, though, it would have been close to a blowout. In Valovic’s eyes, even in a loss, the 2015 DVL MVP more than proved what he’s meant to the Aztecs during his time leading the team.
“We’ve relied on him very heavily, not only in games but in practice,” Valovic said. “To be able to demonstrate certain things to other players, that this is how it’s done, that makes it really nice to have someone like a coach always in the pool.”
CIF PLAYOFF SCHEDULE
D-5: San Jacinto at Rancho Mirage, 2 p.m.
D-6: Xavier Prep at Los Amigos (Garden Grove High School), 4 p.m.
D-7: Shadow Hills at La Sierra (Hillcrest High School), 5 p.m.
D-4: Walnut at La Quinta, 5 p.m.
D-12: Los Amigos at Rancho Mirage 7 p.m.
D-4: Colony at Palm Springs, 7 p.m.
D-5: Redlands at La Quinta, 7:30 p.m.
D-11: Coachella Valley at Montebello, 7 p.m.
8-man D-2: Desert Christian Academy at Lancaster Baptist, 7 p.m.