John Kalil, Managing Editor
// A sunset which covered the sky with pinkish red clouds gave way to night as Mother Nature placed Heaston Aquatic Center at the center of a perfect evening for the North Coast Section (NCS) Women’s Open Division championship match.
Riding a fifty game win streak, the Acalanes women’s water polo team entered the pool at the shallow end, swimming laps and passing the ball around as the first seeded men’s team took care of business against a three seed College Park squad.
As a victorious men’s team climbed out of the pool, the Lady Dons swam under the lane line across the pool to begin warming up in earnest for their championship tilt against Miramonte. The two teams played to final scores of 6-4 and 10-6 earlier in the season, with Acalanes emerging victorious in both matchups.
AC/DC’s classic hit “Thunderstruck” blared from the speakers as a mass exodus of purple gave way to a sea of green, while the Acalanes faithful remained firmly in their seats.
Turning their heads occasionally to watch the boys receive their medals and pose with the plaque and pennant, the Acalanes girls no doubt envisioned themselves replicating the celebration they were watching, and the celebration they had after capping last season with an undefeated NCS championship.
First, however, the team would have to again push through a talented Matadors squad with plenty of playoff experience.
As is customary for section playoff games, principal Travis Bell addressed both teams before the player introductions, reminding them of the importance of sportsmanship and fair play.
After each player had been introduced, the Lady Dons performed an excellent yet unofficial rendition of The Star Spangled Banner, vocally accompanying the recorded instrumental version played for the anthem.
In the final moments before the game, head coach Misha Buchel re-emphasized the old adage that defense wins championships.
“We just know that if we don’t hurt ourselves, that we are defensively incredibly hard to break down. As long as we’re not spending time in the ejection box playing five on six and giving the other team easy chances, we’re going to be in the game,” Buchel said he told his team.
After all the fanfare, it was time for water polo. Acalanes and Miramonte lined up on their respective endlines. The referee in all white blew his whistle and dropped the ball into the pool. Game on.
For the second game in a row, the Lady Dons found themselves in a 1-0 hole. Miramonte won the opening sprint and scored on its first possession of the night on a turnaround goal from set.
“I got a little bit nervous, especially when they got the first shot,” junior goalie Ava Donleavy said.
Unfazed, senior Jewel Roemer answered right back, scoring a goal from way out on a skip shot to the right corner, electrifying the home crowd.
The Mats refused to be intimidated by the heavily favored Acalanes team, scoring a second goal of their own as the Miramonte student section roared in approval.
Junior Claire Rowell responded in kind with a marvelous no-look, backhand goal which drew ooh’s and ah’s from the Acalanes faithful.
The Lady Dons’ defense held, after which Roemer added her second goal of the first quarter with a penalty shot against a helpless Miramonte goalkeeper to elevate her team to a 3-2 lead. Roemer may have a future as a milliner as she picked up a hat trick within the first quarter, scoring the final goal of the period on a cross-pool assist from Donleavy.
Donleavy energized the blue and white crowd with a huge save on a Miramonte counterattack right before the break. The Lady Dons finished the first quarter with a strong 4-2 lead.
Out of the gate Miramonte again drew first blood, scoring with 5:10 left in the second quarter. The team in green came down looking to tie the ballgame at four apiece but Donleavy once again picked up a huge save, the sound of her hands swatting away the ball echoing across the pool deck.
The next time down the pool, Acalanes failed to cash in a 6 on 5. Head coach Misha Buchel called timeout with two minutes left in the half as the Lady Dons remained without a goal in the second period of play.
Roemer fixed that in short order, connecting from deep off the left crossbar and in to put her team up 5-3 at the halfway mark.
A nervous yet excited energy reverberated through the home sections of the bleachers. Win 51 seemed tantalizingly close.
Out of the break Acalanes reversed its fortunes from the opening sprint, winning the sprint to start the third quarter. Junior Alana McCartney then added her name to the scorebook, scoring to put the Lady Dons up by three.
Miramonte came charging back, scoring from deep on a goal which floated to the top left-hand corner, just past the outstretched fingers of Donleavy.
Next the Mats brought the game to within just one goal on a penalty shot, moving within striking distance of the lead.
Roemer had other ideas, scoring her second penalty shot goal of the night to put a little more space between the home team and the visitors.
“You try to put players in a position where the defense is really at their mercy, and the defense either has to panic and take that penalty or they give you a great scoring chance,” Buchel said of his team’s success in drawing penalty shots. “The nice thing is that we have the best shooter in the country taking those for us.”
Working with a lead of just two goals, Donleavy came up with a huge save towards the end of the third quarter. Then, as hit music producer DJ Khaled would say, Donleavy stopped “another one,” holding the Mats at bay as Acalanes held a 7-5 lead with just one quarter left to play.
Donleavy picked up right where she left off, playing like Dikembe with yet another save to open the fourth quarter.
“To see her dominate, to have that trust in the cage is something that we rely on a ton. We know that most any shot she can block. Sometimes in the lineup announcements I’ll scream ‘Ava you’re a brick wall’,” senior Brooke Westphal said.
On the ensuing possession, Rowell was denied from point blank range but recovered the ball and found Westphal for a goal to extend the lead to three.
A goal off a penalty shot for the Mats set the stage for a dramatic finish as the team in green tried desperately to cover the two-goal difference in the final minutes of the contest.
If the Acalanes defense could hold for the remaining three minutes, another NCS first place pennant would be making the short walk back to Buchel’s classroom in the 500 wing.
Donleavy held the ball in the backcourt as precious seconds drained from the game clock before initiating the Acalanes offense with ten ticks left on the shot clock.
Miramonte’s defense held as the Mats’ goalie recovered the ball. Timeout Miramonte.
As they had all night the Lady Dons played stingy defense, forcing a shot clock violation and regaining possession of the rock. After taking its final timeout, Acalanes played conservatively, content to run time off the clock.
“Coach Buchel said to keep hold of the ball and play smart. He wanted us to make sure we were really cautious about where we were tossing the ball up by two with a minute and a half left,” Westphal said of the timeout talk.
Miramonte regained possession of the ball, but the Mats’ final shot of the night wafted harmlessly over the top bar.
By a final score of 8-6, the Lady Dons had defended their NCS Open Division Title. The home crowd applauded as Buchel and the entire team dove into the pool to celebrate the victory.
“That’s the best way to get wet,” Buchel said.
As they had observed the boys do earlier, the Acalanes girls now got their chance to celebrate on the pool deck. Posing for pictures with medals, the pennant and a plaque, it felt like deja vu as the team repeated as NCS champions.
“There’s never been a team to go undefeated twice in a row winning NCS. It’s really special for us as a team. We’ve worked so hard, showing up for morning practice every day and putting in 100 percent effort. It’s showing us that what we do in the pool in practice pays off,” Donleavy, who earned Blueprint player of the game honors for her outstanding play in the cage, said.
But whereas last year the title match against Campolindo marked an end to the season due to poor air quality from the Paradise Camp Fire, this year the Lady Dons get the opportunity to advance to play for all the marbles — a Northern California championship.
Garnering the one seed, Acalanes will open up with a home game on Tuesday night against St. Francis of Mountain View, leaving little time to bask in the glory of a 51st straight win.
“Every game that we play from now on is going to be as tough or tougher than that game. We need to go into these games with the mindset of all or nothing,” Westphal said. “We’d like to go make it 54 straight.”
Watch a video recap below!