The article below originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily Journal and is being reprinted with permission.
College of San Mateo women’s water polo coach Randy Wright has an uncanny knack for predicting how things will shake out in the Northern California water polo scene. He knows, within a game or two, how teams will finish in the standings, who is better than who and can identify the teams to beat.
When it comes to Northern California women’s community college water polo, Wright is hardly wrong.
Wright was incorrect Wednesday, however. Having already lost to Tuesday’s opponent, Merced, twice this season, he positioned the Blue Devils as about a goal to a goal-and-a-half better than the Bulldogs. Early on, it appeared he was way off as Merced scored four goals in the first period and led 5-0 at halftime.
The Bulldogs, however, rallied for seven goals in the second half while limiting the Blue Devils to just one in a stunning 7-6 CSM win — the program’s first-ever victory over a Merced squad that is year in and year out a perennial state title contender.
“Merced is right up there,” Wright said. “That was a big win. CSM has never beaten Merced before. It’s great for the girls.”
Despite being down 5-0 after two periods, Wright knew the difference would be the Bulldogs’ defense. If CSM had any chance of making a comeback, not only would the Bulldogs have to find the back of the cage, they would have to prevent Merced from scoring as well.
“Defense — that was the game plan from the get go,” Wright said. “They beat us by scoring 10 (the first time we played them this year), then nine. Today, we put the number at six.”
Merced nearly reached that mark before halftime. But after giving up four goals in the opening period, the Bulldogs defense gave up just two more over the next three quarters as CSM shut down the Blue Devils.
With CSM locking down Merced on the defensive end, the offense finally found the range in the second half. CSM managed only four shots on goal in the first two periods, with nothing to show for it. In the second half, the Bulldogs put nine shots on frame, seven of which found the back of the net.
CSM wasted little time in turning the game around early in the third period. The Bulldogs earned a five-meter penalty shot less than 30 seconds into the second half, which Erica Staben buried to get CSM on the board. About a minute later, Miya Oto floated home a shot from the left wing to the far right corner of the cage and the Bulldogs were back in the match.
“Those goals reinvigorated us,” Wright said.
Merced got one of the goals back late in the third, but the Bulldogs cut it to three, 6-3, on a Staben shot from the point with a minute left in the period.
The Bulldogs kept the momentum going in the final period as Kelly Dwyer, who struggled with her shot for the first three quarters, finally zeroed in on the cage and buried a shot from the perimeter off a pass from Staben.
Wright believed that was the goal that gave his team the confidence they needed to complete the comeback.
“That goal by Kelly Dwyer was a big one,” Wright said. “[Merced was] dropping off her day. She had some looks, but looked bad (on her shots earlier in the match). They’ve done that the last two games.”
Dwyer’s goal came less than 30 seconds into the fourth quarter and, when Staben scored her second goal from the perimeter about a minute later, the Bulldogs were down just a goal, 6-5. CSM tied the match at 6 with 3:45 left to play when goaltender Daria Kekuewa made a perfect pass to Oto, who had positioned her body between the ball and defender. She turned and swam right past the Merced defender and beat the Blue Devils goalie for the game-tying score.
After seeing their transition game thwarted for most of the match, the Bulldogs got their counter attack going when they needed it the most. The game-winning score came on a similar play, with Kekuewa making another long pass to Ota, who fed a driving Staben, who beat the goalie to the right corner of the goal to put the Bulldogs up 7-6 with 1:31 left to play.
The Bulldogs came up with a steal on Merced’s next possession, but following a CSM timeout, the Bulldogs turned the ball over with just over six seconds to play. The Blue Devils passed it around the perimeter, but a last-second shot was knocked down by Dwyer and Kekuewa latched on to it to secure the victory.
The final half was a far cry from the opening eight minutes when the Bulldogs could do nothing right. Defensively, they were torched for four goals and offensively, they managed only three shots — two which were fired out of bounds and one that was saved.
“Five-nothing is not inescapable. We had opportunities (early in the match). Unfortunately those opportunities … looked horrible,” Wright said. “Coming back from four-nothing and five-nothing, just the ability to keep going was good.”