Dan McIlhatton knew he had a special group when the season started.
It’s hard to believe even the Buhach Colony boys water polo coach envisioned this: The Thunder are playing for a section championship.
The third-seeded Thunder (24-6) will face No. 1 Rio Americano in Saturday’s Sac-Joaquin Section Division II championship game at American River College after upsetting No. 2 Rocklin 10-8 on Wednesday afternoon in the semifinals at Tokay High.
The championship game is scheduled to start at 1 p.m.
“It’s monumental,” McIlhatton said. “I’ve been coaching for 18 years and I’ve never been to a section title game and I’ve coached some great teams. This is truly a special team and this is truly a special time.”
Buhach Colony took it to the No. 2 seed early, scoring three first-quarter goals to sprint out to a 3-0 lead. Buhach Colony then answered every challenge Rocklin offered.
When Rocklin battled back to tie the game at 7-7 late in the third quarter, BC answered with a Joe Bustabade goal to close out the quarter. Bustabade scored again to start the fourth quarter and Buhach Colony was able to close out the victory.
“When we played them earlier this year Joe wasn’t there,” said fellow senior Zach Fookes, who finished with three goals, two assists and three steals. “I guess he was our secret weapon today.”
Buhach Colony felt it was able to jump out to an early lead because Rocklin underestimated them after defeating BC 12-9 earlier this season.
Bustabade, Luke Bird and Fookes all scored in the first quarter to put BC ahead 3-0.
“I feel they came out lackadaisical,” Fookes said. “We gave it to them. We came out fired up. We put shots on the cage. We passed the ball well. We were moving and driving. We were playing good water polo.”
Rocklin got going in the second quarter with three different players scoring to cut the BC lead to 4-3 with 3:34 left in the first half.
Buhach Colony was able to close the half with a Fookes’ goal on an impressive backhand shot from 5 meters out to give BC a 5-3 lead at intermission.
Rocklin seemed to be seizing momentum in the third quarter, pulling even at 7-7, but Bustabade’s goals at the end of the third and to start the fourth gave Buhach Colony the lift it needed.
“When the game got tough we got a little nervous,” said Bustabade, who finished with four goals and three steals. “But we put in the work at practice. We swim the yards. We’re a fourth quarter team. We were ready to push the final seven minutes and it paid off.”
Luke Bird added two goals and Will Seifert scored one in the fourth quarter. Buhach Colony goalie Andre Dalia was tremendous in the cage with 13 saves.
“Absolutely,” McIlhatton said. “They have really good shooters. Andrew made some great saves that kept us ahead.”
Saturday’s championship game can’t get here soon enough for the Buhach Colony players.
“After the game the emotions are crazy,” Bustabade said. “We’re so happy. We’re excited. This just isn’t one year of work. We’ve been working toward this since we were freshmen.
“We’ve never played Rio Americano. We know they are an excellent team. We’ve looked at the teams they’ve played that we’ve played. It’s going to be a tough game, but we’ve earned our spot to play them in the section championship.”