By Joe Naiman
Ramona High School is the 2012-13 CIF Division II girls water polo champion.
The Bulldogs prevailed over Steele Canyon in the Feb. 21 semifinals before defeating Valhalla by an 8-7 score on Feb. 23 for the championship.
“The girls really worked their tails off, and it’s something special for the program,” said coach Donnie Williams. “I just can’t say enough about what the girls did this year.”
Ramona entered the playoffs with a 19-9 record, including a 4-0 mark in Valley League play that earned this year’s league championship, before ending the season with a 22-9 record and the CIF championship.
“This is something you dream of and what you work for,” Williams said. “It was awesome.”
All three of Ramona’s playoff matches were played at La Jolla High School’s Coggan Pool. Ramona was seeded second in the Division II playoffs, behind Valhalla and immediately ahead of Steele Canyon. Ramona earned a first-round bye before opening post-season competition with an 8-6 victory over La Costa Canyon in the Feb. 16 quarterfinals.
Illness hit the Ramona team prior to the Steele Canyon contest.
“They stepped it up and played and just did a great job,” Williams said. “The girls stepped up and fought through it.”
Ramona had a 2-1 lead over Steele Canyon at the end of the first period with Holly Smith and Rachel Hogervorst scoring for the Bulldogs. The Cougars scored both second-period goals, taking a 3-2 lead with 15 seconds left in the half.
The Bulldogs tied the game with Cassie Bernas’ goal on the first possession of the third quarter. A Steele Canyon goal on a power play returned the lead to the Cougars. Hogervorst’s goal tied the game once again, although Steele Canyon regained the lead 10 seconds later. Bernas scored the final goal of the third period, giving each team five goals entering the final quarter of regulation.
Bernas scored again in the first minute of the fourth period before the Cougars once again tied the game. Smith then scored twice in the final minute to stave off overtime and give the Bulldogs the victory.
“That was a hard-fought game all the way,” Williams said.
“Steele Canyon played tough,” said Williams. “They played solid defense and their goalie did a good job.”
Ramona’s goalie, Tiffany Larson, made eight saves against the Cougars.
“It was a solid win,” Williams said.
Despite Smith’s performance in the semifinals, Williams likely would have benched her in the championship match had he known that her illness was actually pneumonia.
“If you know it’s that bad you don’t play them,” he said.
The diagnosis of pneumonia was made the day after the final.
“She played pretty good for having pneumonia,” said Williams. “She was sick, but she knew she was going try to persevere.”
Smith and the other ill players recognized the significance of the championship match.
“They knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something great for the program,” said the coach.
Ramona’s first-ever win against Valhalla occurred in the season-opening Benson Tournament when the Bulldogs took a 5-4 victory in overtime Nov. 30. On Feb. 2 the Norsemen had a 5-4 victory over Ramona in the San Diego Open tournament. The split against the Norsemen in the tournament games allowed Ramona’s players to have confidence even though Valhalla had the higher seed.
“I just told them I knew we were the better team,” Williams said.
“I was more nervous about playing the quarter and the semifinal game,” he said.
Williams explained that as the higher-seeded team Ramona was expected to win those matches.
“If you don’t bring your best they’re going to knock you out,” he said.
Valhalla trailed Rancho Bernardo by a 6-2 score in the semifinals before winning in overtime to advance to the championship game. Ramona and Valhalla had one day of practice between the semifinals and the final.
Three minutes into the first period Hogervorst scored the first goal of the championship match. The Norsemen tied the score after recovering a loose ball, and first period ended in a 1-1 deadlock.
Valhalla converted a five-meter penalty shot in the second period, but 20 seconds later Hogervorst drew a foul that gave Ramona a five-meter penalty shot. Bernas converted the shot to tie the game. The Norsemen then took a 3-2 lead on a power play goal.
In water polo an ejection, or exclusion, is a 20-second penalty in which a team must play short-handed unless a goal is scored against them during that penalty period. A player with three ejections is majored, or removed from the game, so a player with two ejections is often taken out of the pool for a short period to regain her focus. Valhalla’s Courtney Bayuk received her second exclusion with 2:20 left in the first half and was pulled out of the pool. Bernas scored on the power play to tie the game. Bernas then stole the ball and passed to Smith, whose score with 1:36 left in the period gave Ramona the lead. The Bulldogs expanded their lead to 5-3 on Hogervorst’s eight-meter shot with 10 seconds remaining in the half.
“That was a huge momentum goal,” Williams said.
About two minutes into the third period Valhalla scored the first goal of the second half. Hogervorst’s lob shot from about 11 meters away gave the Bulldogs a 6-4 lead, but about 20 seconds later Bayuk’s cross-cage shot went into the net. With 2:23 remaining in the third period Valhalla tied the game on a five-meter penalty shot, although Bernas’ subsequent goal gave Ramona a 7-6 lead entering the fourth quarter.
“The girls felt confident. They were still fighting hard,” Williams said.
An exclusion was called against Ramona in the first minute of the fourth quarter to give Valhalla a power play.
Williams felt that Ramona was struggling with transition early in the fourth period, so he called time-out with six minutes remaining.
“I figured they needed a little bit of rest,” he said.
Smith gave Ramona an 8-6 lead with 4:44 left after receiving the ball on her own eight-meter line, swimming up the pool about nine meters, and taking a shot from about eight meters which went into the high right corner of the net.
“We still had a lot of water polo to play at that point,” Williams said.
Valhalla created an 8-7 score with 4:28 remaining. The Norsemen were awarded a five-meter penalty shot with 3:56 left, but Larson blocked the attempt. With about 2-1/2 minutes remaining the Norsemen had a power play, but Larson made a save on Valhalla’s shot.
Hogervorst, a senior, was majored with 56 seconds remaining.
“She was devastated,” said Williams.
The Norsemen were unable to score on that power play.
“The girls put good pressure on them,” Williams said. “They got a weak shot on us.”
Ramona gained possession with 31 seconds remaining. Williams used his final time-out with 22 seconds left. After moving up the pool, Paulina Bernd then swam in the other direction before disposing of the ball as the 30-second shot clock expired.
The Norsemen took possession with 1.7 seconds remaining and called time-out for one final shot attempt, but time expired before the ball dropped into Ramona’s defending end of the pool.
“We had to earn that,” Williams said of the win. “It was a very, very exciting game.”
The trip to the CIF finals was the first for Ramona. Valhalla won the CIF Division II championship in 2011, and lost to Mt. Carmel in the 2012 finals.
“They’ve been there three years in a row for a reason,” Williams said. “I’m glad that we matched up with Valhalla. It means a lot to be successful against such a good program.”
Larson, a senior, closed out her high school career with 10 saves, as well as the CIF championship.
“It’s the only way to go out,” said Williams.
“There’s nothing like it, really,” Williams said of winning the CIF championship.
Williams began building the program before any of the current players were on the squad, and many of the players recognized Williams’ efforts over the years.
“It means a lot that they cared that much to give me something back,” he said. “This proves that if you continue to work hard you’ll be successful. If you continue to work, in the long run it does benefit you and everyone around you.”
“This is something they’ll take with them forever,” Williams said of the CIF championship.
His 2013-14 team, which is expected to include five of the championship squad’s starters, will now be a target for every other water polo team in the county.
“That’s something we’re going to have to deal with,” Williams said.
That team, however, will have the experience of a championship season.
“I hope this continues to be a habit,” Williams said.