Close games are nothing new to the El Capitan High boys water polo team. The Gauchos have been in every league game but have struggled in the tight ones.
Meanwhile, Merced has shown a knack for winning the close games, usually with Abraham Santana scoring a game-winning goal in the final minute.
The roles were reversed on Monday night, as Andrew Brown and Zak Jones scored early in the fourth quarter to give the Gauchos a one-point lead and El Capitan shut out Merced the rest of the way for a thrilling 9-8 win at Merced High.
“That’s been our theme all year; we’ve lost six league games by (12) combined goals,” said El Capitan coach Rodd Parker, whose team improved to 14-8 overall and 4-6 in the Central California Conference. “Every game has been a one- or two-goal game, so it felt very good to finally be on the winning side of a close game.”
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The loss dropped Merced (6-3 CCC) three games behind Atwater (9-0) with three games remaining. Golden Valley’s upset of Turlock on Monday kept the Bears in a second-place tie with the Bulldogs.
“We can’t lose anymore or we may be looking at the playoffs from the outside,” said Merced coach Kit Grattan.
The Bears had a three-goal lead at the half after a couple highlight goals from Santana. One of which, he beat a double team by tossing the ball over his head to himself and then swimming behind the two El Capitan defenders, catching the ball and firing a shot into the net to give Merced a 6-3 lead with 1:15 left in the second quarter.
“They have a great player in Abraham, and we had to keep on him until we stole the ball or he shot it,” Parker said. “There were times when we had a double team on him but we weren’t aggressive enough with it.”
Santana (four goals) and Alec Propes combined for seven of the Bears’ eight goals.
Leaning on just those two hurt Merced down the stretch.
“We had a couple shots where we were wide open and we missed the goal,” Grattan said. “I think we were looking too much for Abraham to do something – Abraham or Alec.”
That’s where Jones delivered for El Capitan with four goals. When Merced’s defense turned its attention to El Capitan’s top scorers Evan Spiva and Garrett Thomas, Jones came up with big goals.
“I’m not an elite scorer, but I’m able to get a little open when we have a six on five,” Jones said. “I’m not a crazy offensive player. My team knows when to look for me.”
Parker felt the difference in the fourth quarter was that his team didn’t want to lose another close one.
“We’ve leaned on our defense all year,” Parker said. “We were fired up. They were tired of losing. I could see it in their eyes. We had been in all those close games. Now we weren’t being frantic. We played with a lot more composure. We had learned from the last seven games.”
Buhach Colony 9, Pitman 6 in Atwater – Joe Bustabade scored three goals to go along with two assists and two steals to pace the Thunder. Zach Fookes added five steals for Buhach Colony.
Golden Valley 18, Turlock 13 in Turlock – The Cougars overcame a five-goal deficit to upset the Bulldogs.
Livingston 7, Ceres 5 in Ceres – Logan Friesen and James Petanan each scored two goals, and Fernando Mendoza stopped 12 shots in goal for the Wolves.
Girls Water Polo
El Capitan 12, Merced 6 in Merced – Marion Carpenter scored five goals, and teammates Hope Stokes and Madison Nolan chipped in three each, as the Gauchos improved to 10-0 in the CCC.
Buhach Colony 9, Pitman 2 in Atwater – Erin McBride scored five goals and sister Gwynne McBride tallied three goals and five steals to help the Thunder (8-1 CCC) remain one game behind El Capitan in the CCC standings. Regina Navarro recorded 10 saves for BC.
Ceres 12, Livingston 2 in Ceres – Maritza Fuentes and Alejandra Ruelas both scored goals for the Wolves in the loss.