Nearly a year ago, Shadow Hills senior Dylan VanBuskirk won a wrestling team CIF title alongside his brother, Alex, clinching the school’s first ever CIF championship plaque. Dylan admits it was certainly special, but it was the hardware that would mean the most.
Dylan and his twin brother Derek began playing water polo together since the pair of seniors were eight, but the competition began far earlier, he joked.
“We’ve been playing since inside the womb,” Dylan said, hardly able to hold in a laugh. Standing just feet away, the boys’ mother agreed.
“There was a lot of kicking going on in there, that’s for sure,” she chuckled.
“Back when we got the wrestling ring, I thought that the only thing that could mean more was if it was a water polo ring, ‘cause this is my passion and dream since I was little,” Dylan added.
Now, after an 8-4 victory Saturday afternoon in Irvine over Chaffey in the CIF-SS Division 7 finals, Dylan, the team’s catalyst on offense all season, can leave his high school water polo career beind satisfied, sharing a ring with both his brothers who’ve put Shadow Hills on the map in multiple sports since the school opened in 2009.
But in boys’ water polo, the Knights’ road to the top has been particularly hard. Up until this fall, it didn’t much matter how good the squad was. They may have had the talent worthy of a CIF-SS title plaque for some time, but playing without a league made it nearly impossible to grab a spot in the postseason.
That meant this fall playing in the Desert Valley League, even with a fourth-place league finish, the Knights’ eight seniors – the biggest class coach Alicia Chatigny has had in her tenure – were very much unknown, nervous underdogs the whole ride. Single elimination matches were a foreign concept, and the nerves reached a peak Saturday morning.
“it was a little intimidating at first, ‘cause it’s just like ‘This is it. This is what all the talk is about,’” Dylan said. “Coming in to see the huge crowd over there and the other team was jarring.”
“Coming in to see the setup and the facility, it definitely struck up some nerves, and we started a little bit rocky,” the Knights’ coach said.
The “rocky” play Chatigny referred to was illustrated in some unwise long-range shots, along with a major penalty on senior Noah Cain on the Tigers’ second possession that opened the door for Chaffey’s first goal on the mismatch.
The Tigers made it tough all afternoon for Dylan to receive the ball at the two-meter mark, but the second time he touched it in the first, he made it count, connecting on the backhanded shot to tie the match. The first period would end there, with the Knights looking much more comfortable.
On the first possession of the second period, sophomore Tristan Leon calmed down and found his rhythm, sailing a lob shot over the Chaffey goalkeeper Anthony Salazar’s head to give the Knights a lead they wouldn’t give up. Senior Samuel Abawag added his first of two on the afternoon before Chaffey’s Emilio Zuniga found the back of the net just before halftime.
Abawag’s second goal came early in the third, followed shortly by senior Shane Reynolds’ lone goal for a 5-2 Shadow Hills lead. Chatigny was impressed to see how her Knights played with the lead on such a big stage in such an unfamiliar situation.
Even after the final two goals Chaffey scored – one at the end of the third and at the beginning of the fourth to bring the deficit down to two goals – Chatigny’s Knights responded with a goal of their own the very next possession, the sign of a mature group well in-tune with each other.
With six players scoring, it would be hard to argue Saturday’s championship was anything but a team win, one four years in the works.
But Dylan said the Knights’ secret weapon was one no amount of game planning, defense or shots could defend.
“It’s the twinstincts,” Dylan chuckled. “It’s the twinstincts.”