CHS waterpolo advances to CIF finals

No two ways about it some Claremont team was bound to go to the boys water polo finals this Saturday as Claremont High School faced off against The Webb Schools on Wednesday in the semifinals of the CIF tournament.

As it happens, the winner was the number one ranked Wolfpack who decisively beat the Gauls 13-6 at Diamond Bar High.

Not entirely a surprising result, Claremont is a favorite to repeat their CIF victory. What may have been surprising, however, was the strength of The Webb Schools team. The Gauls had a remarkable season indeed with a 23-6 record, 6-0 in league, they repeatedly defeated teams from much larger public schools on their way to Wednesday night’s showdown with the Pack.

The Gauls came out with a strong defense that seemed to focus on double teaming Claremont’s standout shooter Bruno Snow. This tactic worked for much of the first half, however, it also left Johnathon Wong wide open. Wong had no problem capitalizing on the added breathing room, scoring four goals in the first two quarters.

“If you are going to shut down one [player], you are going to leave another open and Wong is not the guy you want to leave open,” said coach Kristin Rodriguez. “That is the nice thing about having both of them.”

The lopsided final result belies the true competition, particularly early on as Webb fought back from a 3-0 deficit to tie the game and paced the Pack for the first 14 minutes. In fact, it looked like the teams would end the half with Claremont up 6-4, which left the final up for grabs.

But a simple mistake by the Gauls and good teamwork by Claremont changed all of that, resulting in the psychological tipping point in the game. With only a few seconds in the quarter, Gauls goalkeeper Maxim Sapozhkov passed to mid pool but his pass was deflected and Wong took possession. Caught unaware, Sapozhkov was playing several meters out of the net and Wong fired a long shot into an empty net at the buzzer. Sapozhkov and the Gauls protested but the goal counted. 

As the third quarter started, the momentum was all in Claremont’s favor as the Pack outplayed Webb on both sides of the pool. To be fair, the Gauls had some galling bad luck, with several key shots hitting the goal post or going wide. But credit also has to go to the Pack’s goalkeeper, Kellan Grant, who executed one great save after another even when Claremont was shorthanded due to an exclusion.

David Albers did his part to keep the Gauls in the game, scoring both of Webb’s goals in the second half, but as time wore on it was clear that the deficit was too great. So with five minutes left, Claremont, up 12-6, started to play a slow defensive game to whittle down the clock.

Coach Rodriguez credited the team’s endurance as the key to their victory.

“We have confidence in our conditioning so even if it is close in the first two quarters, we have enough in our tanks to finish. The third quarter is our key, the fourth is our finisher.” Coach Rodriguez said.

Coach Adam Grisham has led the Gauls for two seasons and they have gone to the CIF tournament both years. Last season they lost to Claremont in the quarterfinal match.

“We lost some momentum in the end of the second when we turned the ball over and they ended up scoring that goal at the buzzer. And then they scored the first goal in the third so I called a timeout to try and slow the game down,” said coach Grisham. “We got tired and we hit a lot of bars [goalposts].”

“We are a fairly young team with only three seniors, we were expecting quarters [this year] so to be in this game was exciting for us. We are looking forward to being in the semis again next year,” he said.

“We had good momentum going into this game, we came out to play,” said Wong as he celebrated with his team after the match. “We have a lot of weapons on this team, especially me and Bruno, and if one gets shut down someone else will fill their place.”

Claremont will face Redlands East Valley this Saturday at William Woollett Jr. Aquatic Center in Irvine for the finals.

The Pack defeated the Wildcats 11-8 back in October but, as Coach Rodriguez pointed out, anything can happen in a championship game.

“They have some feisty active players so I think it is going to be fun.”

—Steven Felschundneff


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