For the first five minutes of Saturday’s CIF Southern Section Division 5 girls’ water polo championship match between Xavier Prep and Pasadena Poly, it appeared like the Saints, competing in the program’s first-ever girls water polo final , were going to run away with the coveted hardware.
Three goals in eight possessions – including two from Jillian Barbato gave Xavier Prep an early, but commanding, 3-0 lead. Against the top seed in the division with two finals appearances since 2012, including a 2014 title, they’d surprised even themselves.
But the surprise would end there. After the Panthers appeared to spend the first period scouting and sizing up their opponents, Poly star freshman Natalie Wilmans fired a dart from the left wing as the buzzer sounded. It was a sign Poly was coming, and fast. With the help of five goals from Wilmans, the Panthers pulled away in the second half for a 10-5 victory.
Unlike Wednesday’s final against Tesoro, where the Saints looked visibly nervous and jittery early on, Xavier Prep came out with an obvious energy for a team with nothing to lose, farther than they’ve ever been before.
“There were definitely more nerves in the semis,” Jessup said. “Then, we were trying to hard to get to the finals. Once we’re here, we’re secure and just want to play our hearts out in the last game of our career for some of us.”
“We came out focused on what we had to do – stop No. 11 (Wilmans), and the shots were going in,” coach Pavol Valovic said. “Then the rest of the game, we were a little bit off.”
The Saints gave up only one more goal before halftime, holding a 3-2 lead going into the break, but Poly’s double-team press around mid-pool was starting to wear the Saints down. Meanwhile, the Panthers were showing an obvious focus on scoring, rotating on sending girls down the pool before Xavier’s offensive attack was complete.
In the third, the pieces finally came into place for Poly, with four goals in transition – two from Wilmans and two from Colleen Woo, who were the leaders in the defensive press. Despite a long goal from Emma Cooper right before the buzzer at the end of the third to inch Xavier back within two, 6-4, the momentum had already shifted.
Valovic was forced to push his girls forward with an offensive emphasis in the fourth to try and create a comeback, but instead, Poly scored four more times in transition to put the game well out of reach.
“You’re already down, and losing by two or three or four, you’re still going to lose, but you have to take those chances,” Valovic said.
Though a couple girls tried to hold back tears during the awards ceremony, the sadness was short-lived. With all but two girls returning for a hopeful CIF title push next year, Valovic and his girls saw getting to Saturday’s championship match as an accomplishment in its own right – matching the boys’ team’s finals appearance in the fall – to show improvement across the entire program.
“The is huge. I told the girls that we won second place in Division 5, and that’s fantastic for our school and for the valley,” Valovic said. “I told them before the game that you can’t lose if you give me everything you’ve got, and they did.”
CIF playoff schedule
D5: Palm Desert at Viewpoint, TBA
D7: Pacific at Rancho Mirage, TBA
D5A: Desert Christian Academy vs. Sherman Indian, TBA