San Marcos boys water coach Jeff Ashton let his players know how special it was to be playing in Thursday’s Channel League showdown against Santa Barbara.
“You’re playing for a championship, it’s the last game of the (regular) season and it’s against a rival school,” Ashton told his team. “For those things to come into alignment doesn’t happen very often. I told them to just enjoy it.”
The Royals did. Playing before a big, loud crowd at the Santa Barbara pool, they held on for a tense 7-6 win that gave them a share of the league title with the Dons and snapped Santa Barbara’s 20-game win streak.
After the game, a coin-flip was held to determine the league’s No. 1 team for the CIF Division 2 playoffs and Santa Barbara (24-5, 7-1) won. The playoff pairings will be announced Saturday.
For San Marcos (22-7, 7-1), the league title is its second in a row.
“It means a lot to us as a program and as a school,” said Ashton. “Before last year it had been almost 20 years since we won a Channel League championship; both have been shared but we’ll take it. We won back-to-back, and I think it says a lot about the kids. The last game (against SB) didn’t go our way, and even today when it started to unravel on us a little bit, they didn’t quit.”
Santa Barbara won the first meeting, 12-8, and battled back from a 4-0 deficit in the first period on Friday to make things interesting.
The play of George Kuesis and goalie Jack Palmer made a big difference in the rematch for the Royals. Kuesis was all over the pool making plays. He posted up for goals and helped contain Santa Barbara’s leading scorer Sawyer Rhodes.
“He really stepped up when we needed it and put the ball in the back of the net when we needed it, and that made all the difference at the end,” said Palmer of his longtime friend.
Kuesis led the Royals with three goals. He scored back-to-back goals early in the third quarter after Santa Barbara had closed to 5-4 before the end of the first half.
That 4-0 lead meant nothing to me,” Ashton said. “I thought in the third quarter when we needed somebody to step up, (Kuesis) got two goals that took it from 5-4 to 7-4. That was a huge momentum boost.”
He fired a shot under the arm of Santa Barbara goalie Justyn Barrios for the 7-4 advantage.
At the defensive end, Kuesis helped out Palmer by taking away the shooting angle of the left-handed Rhodes. After tallying five goals at San Marcos, Rhodes was held to three on Thursday.
“Sawyer Rhodes is a crazy good shooter, so we tried to double-team him as much as possible because he can score 1-on-1 almost every time,” said Kuesis.
“They were doubling a lot quicker than they did last time, so they were leaving our righties open a little bit more,” Santa Barbara coach Mark Walsh explained “(Evan) Blix was open so he got a couple of goals. I think they figured, ‘If we’re going to let somebody beat us, let’s not let Sawyer do it. Let’s make it somebody else beat us.‘ They did a good job of doubling him and being there on all his drives. That left other guys open, so we just got to find those other guys to hit those shots
Kuesis said the Royals were determined to play a better game against the Dons.
“We were pretty mad about the last game (against the Dons),” Kuesis said. “This game we were really focused on and executed like we wanted. And everybody was really excited because it was the last league game. It was our seniors’ last game at Santa Barbara’s home and there was a ton of people here.”
The performance by Kuesis impressed Walsh.
“I really thought Kuesis was the difference,” he said. “He posted up a lot, drew some ejections and got some shots. He posted up a little more and that was something we had a hard time addressing defensively. And he made us pay for it.”
Palmer was solid in the cage. He stopped a 5-meter penalty shot by Rhodes with 17 seconds left in the third quarter, leaving the Royals with a 7-5 lead.
“Jack Palmer played a great game. When he plays well, it gives our defense the ability to do different things because we know he’s going to make the blocks he should make,” Ashton said. “He played great and it always fires the kids up. And, we were free to help on Sawyer more and do things different.”
Palmer said part of the game plan was to make it tougher for Rhodes to get clean looks at the goal.
“We realized from the first time we played them that that was a real big threat,” Palmer said. “Sawyer is an amazing, amazing player. We started thinking of ways we could combat that and ways we could beat that and we did today. It was awesome.”
Palmer got some help from the woodwork and the water. The Dons banged several shots off the cage and had one shot come within an eyelash of floating into the goal early in the fourth period.
“It was probably shorter than an inch, maybe about a centimeter,” Palmer said.
On the shots that hit the posts, he said, “The wood was definitely my friend today.”
San Marcos had everything working in the first period, roaring out to a 4-0 lead. Adam Fuller scored a beautiful third goal, tapping in a lob pass from Spencer Wood, who tallied two goals in the period.
Santa Barbara worked its way back into the game. Rhodes scored on a penalty shot to put the Dons on the board. San Marcos answered with nice bit of teamwork: Jesse Morrison threw a cross-pool pass to Kuesis, who fed Fuller inside for a goal and a 5-1 lead.
Palmer stopped two Santa Barbara shots before Blix fired a skip shot past him. Rhodes scored on a power play and then finished a spectacular shot after reaching back to catch an overthrown pass on the right wing. His back was in the water when he released the shot. That amazing play made it a 5-4 game.
San Marcos kept its composure and never gave up the lead.
“Coach said no matter what the score is in the first quarter it’s going to be a battle at the end,” Palmer said. “We took that to heart as we were playing and we realized, ‘Hey we got to keep fighting and we can’t give up.’”
Early in the fourth period, Jack Rottman beat two defenders and lobbed a shot over Palmer to pull the Dons to 7-6. Barrios then came up big, stopping a penalty shot by Wood with 3:43 to go.
But the Dons were unable to come up with a tying goal. Morrison made a huge steal on a drive by Rhodes with 36 seconds left, and the Royals held on the rest of the way to gain a share of the title.
For Ashton, the victory over a Walsh-coached team was especially gratifying.
“I feel Mark Walsh is like (New England Patriots coach) Bill Belichick and I’m like (Buffalo Bills coach) Rex Ryan,” he cracked. “I tell my kids, ‘You know you’re going to get outcoached, so you guys better outplay those guys.’ He runs a great program and he’s a great coach. Anytime you can beat SB it’s an accomplishment.”