IRVINE — In its run to the CIF Southern Section Division III championship, the La Cañada High boys’ water polo team encountered a fair share of slow starts only to come through in the end.
But the finish to the Spartans’ season and Saturday afternoon’s final following a slow start at William Woollett Aquatics Center in Irvine was just as frustrating as it was disappointing.
With its top scorer and coach both gone from the match, the Spartans saw a tight finale slip into a one-sided finish, as third-seeded Martin Luther King won its first-ever CIF-Southern Section title at the expense of La Cañada claiming its sixth when the Wolves used a five-goal fourth period to pull away with a 14-9 victory.
“They came out harder, they played harder,” said Spartans senior driver Alden Geller, who scored a team-high five goals and was the only Spartan with multiple tallies. “We tried our best.
“It’s tough, we put our heart into it.”
Down, 9-7, heading into the fourth quarter, La Cañada (23-9), the No. 1 seed, relinquished consecutive goals to third-seeded King (27-6) before Geller was whistled for his third and final ejection. Already down four goals, the ejection accelerated a downward spiral for the Spartans, who gave up a third straight goal on a man-advantage just moments before La Cañada Coach Devon Borisoff received a red card and was ejected from the game.
“It’s disappointing. I thought we played a good enough game to win,” said Borisoff, who drew a yellow card in the second quarter and was issued a red with 5:02 remaining in the match and then vented his frustration by kicking over a plastic guard rail adjacent to the Spartans bench. “I don’t usually talk about refs, but ... I thought she absolutely took us out of the game.
“She threw me out of the game because I said she was horrible. That’s the most ticky-tacky thing I’ve ever been kicked out for. She throws me out of a CIF championship because I said she was horrible.”
Assistant Kristen Dronberger took the lead for the Spartans, who immediately cut the lead to 12-8 on a man-advantage score by senior two-meter Bryce Hopkins off a pass from senior driver Johnny Louk, but it was too late to mount a comeback, especially when King answered with a score just 19 seconds later to bring its lead back to five goals to ultimately seal the win.
“La Canada’s a great team with a storied program. To beat a quality program that does things the right way is an honor,” said King Coach Kevin Rosa, who was led by Thomas Appel’s match-high six goals and an outstanding day in the cage by goalie Dustin Shaw, who had 16 saves. “Our defense was great in the first half and in the second half you could see they were getting frustrated.”
Appel opened the scoring with 3:59 to go in the first quarter, giving King a lead it would never relinquish, as the Spartans fought from behind the entire match, tying it at 2 and then again at 3 to end the first quarter.
“We knew we could come back,” Geller said. “We knew we had it in us.”
But so too did King, which answered time and again, allowing La Cañada to put together consecutive scores just once in the match.
A man-advantage goal by King ended the first-half scoring and gave the Wolves a 5-4 lead. The score was the first of three straight carrying into the third period that swelled the lead to 7-4 and began to swing the momentum forever in the favor the Wolves.
“They were big and strong and they knew what they were doing,” said Spartans senior Symeon Stefan, the team’s regular-season leading scorer who was held to just one goal. “That goalie was incredible. He’s easily the best goalie we’ve played.
“Honestly, I think [the difference] was the goalie. He did an amazing job. He made the difference.”
The Spartans defense, be it the ejection calls or the Wolves’ offense, was also stifled, as King scored a postseason-high 14 goals and La Cañada allowed six more scores than it had in any previous playoff match.
“[Shaw’s] always phenomenal. We’re not in this game without him,” Rosa said. “I thought they got frustrated a little bit and our offense got it going. Normally, we don’t score that many goals.”
The Spartans were whistled for eight ejections to King’s seven, with the latter scoring six man-advantage goals.
Borisoff also took umbrage with a controversial call in the third quarter when it appeared Spartans goalie Jeff Lee had pulled back a Wolves' shot before it crossed the goal mouth, but it was ruled a goal, giving King a 7-4 lead. The Wolves’ next goal came on a five-meter shot that Borisoff also disagreed with.
“Calls weren’t going our way,” said Geller, who also had three steals.
Chase Borisoff and Louk also had goals for the Spartans, who were looking to win the program’s sixth title in a fifth decade.
Devon Borisoff, in his first year after taking over for Todd Sprague shortly before the season began, was also hoping to become the second Spartans coach in history to win a CIF plaque after Larry Naeve navigated the first five. But it simply wasn’t meant to be on Saturday for the Spartans.
“Anything can happen in one game at the end,” said Borisoff, who won a title in 2007 with the Spartans and said he planned to stay on as head coach or an assistant if the program could find a quality replacement. “I’m extremely proud of these boys.
“I really love every single kid on this team. ... They left it all in the pool.”