La Quinta water polo pushes Peninsula to the wire, falls 6-5

FILE - A water polo player attempts a shot at net.

FILE – A water polo player attempts a shot at net.

By all stretches of imagination, the La Quinta girls water polo team, a roster filled largely filled with freshmen and sophomores, shouldn’t have challenged a Peninsula squad ranked at the top of the CIF Southern Section Division 4 poll for much of the 2016-17 season.

But these Blackhawks haven’t played by the book all season.

In the end, La Quinta’s upset-minded squad, looking to be the dark horse of the Division 4 playoffs simply ran out of time with a reeling Panthers team ahead 6-5 when the final buzzer sounded, a Blackhawk player still trying to find position for one last heave at the goal.

“I felt we could beat them the whole time,” La Quinta coach Cal Lowell said. “The girls, maybe they doubted a couple moments along the way, but for the most part, they believed. There was a reason you could see that team backpedaling so much there at the end.

“This was the litmus test for our division, and for my little girls to come as far as we did and accomplish the things they did this year and take they all the way to the end, I think I’m pretty satisfied.”

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From the game’s outset, it was clear both teams would be in for a defensive struggle. At the start of each period, rather than trying to sprint and battle La Quinta for the first possession, Peninsula, without a swift enough swimmer, hung back and got in position on defense.

For the first 20 combined possessions, neither team found the back of the net, both goalkeepers combining for eight blocks. Offensive opportunities were there, but neither squad could capitalize.

The Blackhawks landed on the board first with a goal from up close from Savannah Hampton with 0:28 left in the first quarter, but La Quinta’s lead lasted just 13 seconds before Peninsula’s Lily Hopkins scored a turnaround toss with 0:15 to go.

Then, on the first possession of the second, Hopkins scored again. La Quinta’s Rachel Sherman tied things up with 4:50 left in the first half, but in the game’s only truly offensive-minded moments, Hopkins’ teammates found her streaking back early off a defensive possession twice in-a-row for two breakaway goals before the second period ended, giving Peninsula a 4-2 lead at the break.

Once Lucia Abele scored to open the third period and secure a 5-2 lead for the Panthers, La Quinta’s chances seemed all but lost. It was then, though, that Lowell said his girls started to calm.

“When we were down, I could see it in their eyes,” Lowell said. “They believed they could take them, and doing what they could to do it and claw their way back in, you can’t be anything but proud of that.”

Although La Quinta often missed opportunities to swim the ball in closer to create shorter shots, the few times they found openings in between Kiersten Hazard’s long arms in goal, they found ways to capitalize. Mikka Von Scherr’s two goals to end the third period brought the Blackhawks within 6-4.

Throughout much of the fourth, the Panthers attempted to bleed time, especially after Von Scherr’s third goal of the game with 2:15 left to get within one.

But when Peninsula slowed their charge on offense, they tightened up on the other end, and an inexperienced La Quinta squad just ran out of time.

If there is such a thing as a good loss, La Quinta may have secured one Thursday night.

“These girls will be hungry next year, and they’ll be more mature,” Lowell said. “We’ll have good game film, and we can watch our mistakes, and we can worry about it during the long off-season, but I think the loss in some way will help.”

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