The article below originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily Journal and is being reprinted with permission.

With the California Community College women’s water polo Northern California Regionals on the horizon next weekend, the Lady Bulldogs are hoping the Cinderella finish to their regular season carries them through to the Nor Cal pool.

First, however, the Bulldogs face a big test Friday at CSM in an elimination tournament at the Coast Conference South Division Championships, with only the winner of the five-team tourney advancing to Nor Cal tournament Nov. 11-12 at Las Positas College-Livermore.

The Bulldogs responded to a big pressure game in their regular-season finale last Wednesday, hammering Cabrillo College-Aptos 16-6 to clinch a three-way tie to close the Coast Conference South regular season. CSM, Cabrillo and West Valley-Saratoga all finished with identical 3-1 records in league.

“We definitely finished strong in our conference play and we’re in a good place,” CSM head coach Randy Wright said. “I believe it came together a lot better than expected. But in a winner-take-all, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”

The Bulldogs open Friday’s conference tournament by facing Cabrillo for a second straight time. CSM takes on the Seahawks at 10 a.m. Three more games round out the tournament schedule with West Valley taking on either DeAnza or City College of San Francisco at 11:15 a.m. The losers of the two opening matches play for third place at 1:30 p.m. Then the two winners play for the outright conference championship at 2:45 p.m.

CSM opened the season with a 2-5 overall record through September. Then at the start of October, the Bulldogs dropped three straight to West Valley, Foothill and Merced before winning their last two in conference.

“September and early October we took lumps,” Wright said. “We lost a lot of close games and it got tough.”

The Bulldogs’ final two conference wins were by a cumulative score of 31-13 with sophomores Vanessa Kibblewhite and Gabriela Montoya providing a lion’s share of the scoring, while sophomore center Olivia Cosca led the team in assists.

With just a 10-player roster, CSM has had to earn its sea legs with little respite in the way of backup players. Wright said in a perfect world, he would like to have 20 players on roster. Instead, he has had to get creative with moving players around to play matchups to get the most out of his scant squad as opposed to overpowering opponents.

“We’re not that type of team,” Wright said. “We have to play chess.”

The key to CSM’s success in this respect has been a pair of freshmen defenders. Montoya has been most productive guarding opponents’ top drivers, while Danielle Peterson out of Half Moon Bay generally matches up with the center. Wright uses this formula to reduce the game to four-on-four, he said.

CSM has platooned two goalies throughout the year in sophomores Shelby McMillan and Sina Gomez. Gomez also saw playing time in the field, but utilizing her in the cage gives the Bulldogs a more aggressive look on offense.

“Time and again with Sina in the cage, it gives them the ability to press a little more,” Wright said. “And that’s how we have to start it on Friday.”

While unlikely due to every Coast South team owning sub-.500 overall records, it is possible the second-place team from Friday’s tournament could earn a wild-card bid to the Nor Cal championships. The last time CSM qualified for the Nor Cal tourney was in 2011 with just such a wild-card bid.