Gilroy in driver’s seat to win Mission title

Nate Cazares scored three goals in the Mustangs' 8-7 win over San Benito. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Nate Cazares knows he brings a lot of energy to the pool. His enthusiasm is infectious, and often times it rubs off on his team in a beneficial way. Last Wednesday was one of those times. Cazares, who was switched to the field after playing goalie in the first half, scored three second-half goals to power the Gilroy High boys water polo team to a thrilling 8-7 win over San Benito High in what was likely the match to decide the Pacific Coast League Mission Division championship.

“It was really relieving just because it was a really close game,” Cazares said. “We’re really proud of this because this is the first time the boys water polo program in Gilroy history has won league I believe. So it’s a really awesome feeling.”

When Cazares was switched to play the field for the third period, he had one thing in mind: to score goals. And that’s exactly what he did. Driving constantly toward the goal, Cazares’ relentlessness paid off as he scored two quick goals coming out of halftime—one on a penalty shot and the other off a rebound—before adding a third goal a minute and a half into the fourth period that made it 7-5.

Three minutes later, with Gilroy on a 6-on-5 advantage, Nicky Franco delivered a perfect pass to Nate Barbaglia, who buried a shot to give the Mustangs a 8-5 lead with 3 minutes, 31 seconds remaining. San Benito made things interesting at the end, scoring two goals and having a chance to tie the game on the final possession. However, the Haybalers’ shot sailed over the top crossbar as time expired.

Barbaglia finished with two goals, while Race Thompson, Jacob Muncy and Franco had one goal each. It was another balanced scoring attack from Gilroy, which has thrived on a team concept and having versatile players. For instance, the only way Cazares can play the field is because sophomore Emmitt Silva is more than capable of holding down the goalie position. In fact, Silva made a couple of spectacular saves, including a terrific stop on a San Benito shot that came in fast from close range with 1:12 to go, preserving the win.

This was the third match between the two teams this season, with San Benito winning the first meeting 11-10 in overtime and Gilroy dominating the second matchup, 11-2. The rubber match came down to the wire as expected, with the match featuring tremendous play. Coach Doug Pickford, who earlier in the month earned the Central Coast Section Fall Sports season Honor Coach Award, was proud of his players’ effort and performance.

“Everybody was going to be giving everything they could and the adrenaline was going to be running 100 percent,” he said. “And they were going to have to play four quarters to win this thing, which they did. Emmitt did just spectacular. We were behind early, then came back with our second goalie, which allowed us to put Nate in the field. He’s such a fast swimmer and he gave us energy. He scored twice in the third period and that changed the momentum of the game.

“The team played really well. They were talking to each other, pulling for each other and for me I just loved to see at the end the raw emotion coming from winning such an important game. Everyone was hooting and hollering, and they’ve worked really hard this year. It’s been a long time coming since Gilroy has won a boys water polo championship.”

Thompson scored the team’s second goal on a beautiful one-timer coming off a terrific pass from Lucas Bissell. Thompson can shoot effectively from either arm, which makes him a legitimate scoring threat from anywhere in the pool. Pickford said he was happy to see Barbaglia score a couple of goals because of the amount of work he puts into creating opportunities for himself and his teammates. Franco had a team-high three steals, while also making his presence felt defensively.

His goal on a wicked skip shot from four meters away gave the Mustangs a 6-4 lead with 1:15 left in the third period. Gilroy trailed 3-2 at halftime before making a key adjustment that set up the decisive third period. Cazares said he felt fresh entering the field in the second half, and he got behind the San Benito defense a couple of times on two of his goals.

“I just kept driving and driving and got open,” he said. “Normally, when I’m in goal and I get scored on, I try to take it out on them and score goals when I get into the field. It got me really fired up that it was a close game, and I just wanted to encourage my teammates and uplift them the whole game.”

Gilroy outshot San Benito 36-15, a huge advantage in a one-goal game. However, Balers goalie Tyler Oelrich was simply sensational, making six point-blank saves that prevented Gilroy from reaching double-digit goals—or more.

“I give their goalie giant credit,” Pickford said. “He did such a good job and played a great game. This was a fun game, and that’s why we do this, to have great, competitive matches.”

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