La Verne, Calif. - It was only fitting that with the SCIAC title on the line with a tie game in the fourth quarter, the two players who stepped up for the Pomona-Pitzer Men's Water Polo team were the only two players who had won one before.
Senior Jaron Moler (Carmichael, Calif.) had the tiebreaking goal and senior Kyle Pokorny (Coronado, Calif.) had six of his 14 saves in the fourth quarter without allowing a goal as Pomona-Pitzer defeated Claremont-Mudd-Scripps 7-4 in the SCIAC Championship game on Sunday afternoon at the La Verne Aquatics Center.
(pictured: one of Pokorny's 14 saves on the day)
Moler and Pokorny are the only two seniors on the team, and the only two players left from the last Sagehen team win a SCIAC championship in 2008.
"We've come full circle, Jaron and I," said Pokorny. "It's an indescribable feeling. It still hasn't sunk in all the way. Right now it feels like just another big win, but for us as seniors to step up in that situation really sends a message to everyone about how important it is to work hard and bite the bullet through tough times. We have a lot of underclassmen, who will be juniors and seniors next year, and I can't wait to see how high this program can go in the next few years."
The win gives Pomona-Pitzer the SCIAC title outright after both teams tied for the conference lead after round-robin play at 6-1. CMS won the regular season meeting between the teams on Oct. 19 by a 10-8 final at its home pool.
Pomona-Pitzer led 4-2 midway through the second quarter, and went through almost two full quarters without a goal, as the Stags were able to even the score in the third on the second goal of the game from senior Brian Chong.
The Stags had several chances to take the lead in the fourth, but Pokorny came up with three big saves. With his team's offense sputtering a bit, Moler finally ended the drought with a goal with 5:43 to play, as he skipped a shot from the left side under the crossbar.
Pokorny then made a series of saves to keep the game 5-4, including two on one possession. Junior Jason Cox (Arnold, Md.) then had a huge defensive play as he reached in for a steal and drew an exclusion with 1:11 to play. After a timeout, sophomore Ryan Higgins (Orinda, Calif.) scored a back-breaking goal with 48 seconds left on the man-up advantage to give the Sagehens a two-goal lead.
After the Stags failed to counter with a quick shot, junior Cody Moore (San Dimas, Calif.) added the final goal into an empty net with six seconds left, as CMS frantically tried to pressure the Sagehens into a turnover to get the ball back.
Pokorny says that although he knew the importance of those fourth-quarter saves, he felt the key was remaining calm and not getting too excited in the moment.
"I don't think my mentality ever changes," he said. "There's never a shot in a game that I don't think is important to block, so I don't think my intensity was necessarily any higher. The key is making sure I'm focused and I'm reading the shooter's shoulders and seeing the shot come out of his hand."
Pokorny also made sure to give credit to the people in front of him. "The real heroes were the defense," he said. "I might have had a lot of saves, but they forced CMS to put up a lot of shots that I could handle. If their shooters have time and are allowed to wave the ball around, they are so talented offensively that no goalie is going to have much of a chance."
CMS scored the game's first two goals after the Sagehens hit the crossbar on their first two possessions (they would hit the post/crossbar five times in the first half). Cox, though, got Pomona-Pitzer started with an immediate goal after the Stags took the 2-0 lead, and Moler tied the score up two minutes later.
With 12 seconds left in the first quarter, sophomore Jarrod Gaut (Irvine, Calif.) pounced on a loose ball in front of the net and tipped it in to give the Sagehens their first lead at 3-2. Neither team had much success on offense in the second quarter, but junior Mark Hudnall (Los Altos, Calif.) was able to score midway through the stanza to put Pomona-Pitzer ahead 4-2 at the half.
Head Coach Alex Rodriguez said that Gaut's impact was enormous for the Sagehens. "I have to single out Jarrod Gaut coming back from an injury and playing out there with a bad shoulder," he said. "He's only played in maybe five games, and he can usually only give us 3-4 minutes, but his sacrifice playing hurt has been big. He scored that goal which gave us some momentum and then he played the whole fourth quarter and was a big part of our defensive effort."
Another big part of the defensive effort in the fourth quarter was the end result of Pokorny's work in practice. The first time the two teams met, the Stags scored a pair of fourth quarter goals on lob shots over his head to stop Sagehen comebacks and come away with the 10-8 win. They went to that well again twice in the fourth quarter, and Pokorny stopped both.
"I've never been good at stopping those shots," said Pokorny. "I'm a little on the small side, so I'm at a bit of a disadvantage as it is. Ever since that first CMS game, the goalies have been working on stopping that shot in practice on our own. All three of us have even gotten pretty good at shooting them. I'm not going to lie, though, I was nervous about what if this happened again, and my inability to block the lob costs us a championship. I might have been lucky that I saw it before from them, and I was able to read it this time."
"I think Kyle played a great game overall," said Rodriguez. "He'll admit he's not very good at those lobs. A lob shot is occasionally a good shot, but sometimes it's a sign of weakness as a shooter, so we don't shoot them much. I think for him to stop those shots was a statement to the other team. He's worked hard since that game, and this time, he ate them up."
Moler added, "There's only one quote you need from this game," he said. "As soon as it was over, Kyle turned to us and said 'I finally blocked a lob.'"
Moler was the only Sagehen with two goals on the day, including the tying goal in the first quarter to eliminate the last lead for CMS, and the go-ahead goal in the fourth quarter. "And he guarded Brian Chong, their best player, in the second half and did a great job," said Rodriguez. "Even the one goal he scored on him (to tie the game 4-4), Jaron played good defense, it was just a great shot. He really stepped up when we needed him."
Just like you'd want from your seniors.
Pomona-Pitzer will be back in action next weekend at the Western Water Polo Association Championship at UC San Diego. The WWPA winner will get an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.