WATER POLO: GHS girls defeat Balers for first league championship

Head coach Sean LaGuardia gets tossed into the pool with his

Gilroy earns first league championship, second straight trip to
CCS playoffs.
In two previous matches between San Benito and Gilroy, the rival schools split with no more than a single goal of separation.

San Benito won 8-7 in late September.

Gilroy won 13-12 in late October.

Not surprisingly, Saturday’s Tri-County Athletic League Tournament championship pitted the two teams against one another for a third time this season, but the title bout completely avoided the norms of earlier matches.

In Gilroy’s case, that was just fine.

Behind a pair of goals from senior Lauren Rhodes and 15 saves from keeper Devan Lauber, the Mustangs turned a normally offensive series into a defensive battle, and earned their first-ever TCAL championship with a 5-2 victory over the Balers Saturday — about as comfortable as it gets between the schools.

“That’s just how it’s gonna have to be,” said Gilroy head coach Sean LaGuardia, moments after he was tossed into the pool by his team at Monterey’s Santa Catalina. “We’ll take it.”

With some 25 combined goals between the two teams in the last match, who would of thought the go-ahead and eventual game-winning goal on Saturday would have been pocketed with 18 seconds left in the second quarter?

But with the match knotted at 2, Gilroy’s Leah Ailes found the back of the net during the waning seconds of the first half Saturday, supplying Gilroy with a 3-2 halftime edge and a lead it would never relinquish.

“This is amazing,” Rhodes said. “Last year we lost to Salinas (in the TCAL championship). That was very sad.

“But we wanted a banner for our senior year, and we’re happy we beat our rivals.”

The first-ever title victory qualifies Gilroy to this week’s Central Coast Section Division I Championships for just the second time in school history; last year, the Mustangs finished runner-up in the TCAL and made their very first CCS appearance as the 11-seed.

This time around, Gilroy earned the 8-seed after going 20-2 overall, and will square off against No. 9 Sequoia (10-5) during Wednesday’s opening round. Match time is 5:30 p.m., at Monta Vista High.

LaGuardia and the Mustangs probably wouldn’t mind seeing San Benito for a fourth time this season. The only way that would happen is if both teams reach the Division I championship, as the Balers (18-6) appear opposite Gilroy after earning the No. 10 seed.

San Benito will compete against No. 7 Los Gatos (13-11) in Wednesday’s opening round. Match time is 4 p.m., at Monta Vista.

“I think they’re a solid team,” San Benito head coach Hayley Vandercook said of Los Gatos.

She later added, “It’ll be a challenging game, I’m sure. But I think after Saturday, they’ll be ready to go.”

Saturday’s TCAL final may have been a wake-up call for the Balers, who hadn’t been held to two goals in a single match during the regular season, and instead often posted offensive totals in the double digits.

The same could be said for Gilroy, too, but neither team was able to flex its offensive muscle on Saturday.

“This was a defensive battle, right to the very end,” LaGuardia said. “We knew it was gonna be the team who played the better defense, just based on the first two games.”

Although the Balers managed to get off 27 shot attempts, many of the team’s chances sailed over the net.

“We just couldn’t find the back of the net,” Vandercook said. “We got plenty of shots off. They just didn’t go where they were supposed to go.”

San Benito did much of its defensive work on hole set Chelsea Hill. The Mustangs’ go-to scored a second-quarter goal that put Gilroy ahead 2-1 with 3:41 remaining, but was otherwise guarded very closely by hole defense Lauren Lango.

When Hill did receive the ball in front of the cage, Balers Caitlin Schafer and Jeanett Rodriguez, among others, quickly crashed down on the position.

Gilroy was expecting the double teams on Hill, though.

“When they did that, we knew everyone else would need to get a goal,” said Rhodes, who pocketed a pair of scores in the second half for Gilroy that turned a 3-2 halftime lead into a 5-2 cushion. “We knew everyone else needed to help out.”

Mustang Michelle Shields provided some offense in the first quarter — she also had a match-high six steals. Capitalizing on a man-up situation, Shields kicked out to Hill, who then quickly passed back to Shields for the game’s first goal just 40 seconds into regulation.

Gilroy didn’t have as much luck for the remainder of the period, though. Several steals by San Benito prevented the Mustangs from adding to their lead, while keeper Marieke Liem, who had 12 saves in the match, assisted on a Schafer goal with 1:23 left in the quarter to knot the game at 1-all.

For the game, Schafer, Schnekenburger, Lango, Rachel Estep and Hannah Smith provided three steals apiece, while Rodriguez and Beka Torres each provided two steals for the Balers.

“My girls played the best defensive game they’ve played all year,” Vandercook said.

Hill’s goal in the second quarter — a no-look slingshot while being double-teamed — staked Gilroy to a 2-1 lead, though. But the edge evaporated one minute later when Schafer assisted Schnekenburger on the game-tying goal.

Ailes’ shot from roughly eight meters out with 18 seconds left in the half proved to be the difference, however. The back-and-forth scoring nature of the first half turned into a defensive battle in the third and fourth quarters.

Steals, saves and missed shots were suddenly — surprisingly — the name of the game between San Benito and Gilroy.

“It’s what we’ve been working on all season,” LaGuardia said of his team’s defense.

Photos to follow

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