By Andrew J. Campa, Staff Writer
IRVINE – There were some tears, disappointment and perhaps a little regret from the Pasadena Poly boys water polo team on Saturday.
However, there certainly was no shame as the Panthers’ impressive season ended in defeat at the hands of No. 2-seeded La Serna, 17-9, in the CIF-Southern Section Division 5 championship game at the William Woollett Jr. Center.
The Del Rio League champion Lancers (21-5) clinched the program’s first-ever title in 10 attempts.
In contrast, Prep League champion Poly (22-4) was making its inaugural trip to a title game.
“The first thing I told (the team) was nobody was expecting us to be here,” Poly coach Ryan Katsuyama said. “We started the season like seventh or eighth in the top 10 poll.
“Going into the playoffs, we were the fourth seed in the same side of the bracket as the No. 1 team. No one expected us to be here.”
The Panthers reached the title game with a remarkable defensive effort that limited top-seeded Crescenta Valley to two goals in a 6-2 victory in Wednesday’s semifinal.
On Saturday, Poly had few answers against a high-energy La Serna squad that increased its lead by three goals in every quarter until it led 15-6 after three periods.
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The third quarter proved decisive as La Serna outscored Poly 6-3.
The Panthers entered the third quarter trailing 9-3 and immediately peppered La Serna goalie Michael Skinas with three shots in the first two minutes.
Skinas blocked two attempts by Graham Nesbit and a third caromed off the crossbar.
During the Panthers’ flurry, Poly forced two turnovers and junior goalie Colin Woolway stopped La Serna’s Aaron Valdes (seven goals) on a 5-meter penalty try at 5:22 set up by an exclusion of Kelly McGee.
The Panthers’ offensive misses swung momentum in the opposite direction as La Serna increased its 9-3 advantage to 15-5 via a 6-2 run on two goals from seniors Valdes and Philip Nugent and a long-distance score from Skinas.
La Serna’s Kris Kohout stole a pass in front of his net and quickly passed the ball back to Skinas. Rather than lead a quick counter, Skinas instead attempted a length-of-the-pool shot that sailed past the backtracking Panthers defense and into the net for a stunning goal.
“We’re pretty bummed right now, playing our worst game of the season in the finals,” Woolway said. “We’re a young team and made some crucial mistakes and had some breakdowns.”
The majority of the Panthers’ offense came from junior 2-meter attacker Henry Pray, who scored all three of Poly’s goals in the first half and finished with a team-high five.
It wasn’t until Panthers junior Chris Ward scored off an assist from Nesbit with 3:01 left in the third quarter that anyone other than Pray scored for Poly.
“They were probably double-teaming Henry Pray more than Graham Nesbit,” Katsuyama said, “but they knew that those guys were our top two players.”
Other than Pray and Ward, Robert Lantry scored two goals for Poly and Woolway totaled 11 saves.
“I told the guys to look at that celebration that La Serna was having and use that as motivation for next year,” Katsuyama said. “I’ve got six of my seven starters returning and a lot of talent coming back.
“We’re hoping that next year we can be the champions rather than being the runner-up.”
The Poly championship game roster also included Nikita Kitaev, Spencer Rogers, Dennis Grover, Chris McWilliams, C.E. Lehman, Brock Hudnut, Ryan Schiller and Michael Tanner.
Katsuyama was assisted by Robert Curreri and Eric Reaves.