Torrey Pines girls cap turnaround water polo season with CIF D-II title
A year ago February, the Torrey Pines girls water polo team was coming off a less-than-inspiring 7-14 regular season, did not earn a post-season tournament berth and would be returning just three players from that roster.
On Saturday, Feb. 18, at La Jolla’s Coggan Aquatic Center, with a lineup devoid of seniors, the Falcons, powered by a three-goals in 90 seconds outburst late in the third quarter, downed third-seeded Bonita Vista to capture the CIF Division II championship, 8-5.
The victory was Torrey Pines first-ever section girls water polo crown and improved the squad’s 2022-23 record to 21-9. Seeded fifth entering the playoffs, the Falcons eliminated No. 5 Oceanside, 6-4, in the quarterfinals and then knocked off top-seed Eastlake, 14-6, in the Thursday, Feb. 16, semi-final.
From second-year Head Coach Brandon Carman’s perspective the previous season’s disappointment was somewhat understandable and the turnaround was really more of a complete re-start.
“Last year we had a first-time coach at the school, a lot of players who hadn’t played at all during Covid and, as a result, some seniors who just weren’t really there,” said Carman, a Sonoma State graduate. “This past off-season, we had a lot of girls commit to playing club water polo, a lot of girls out recruiting other students to fill out the roster and the biggest difference was everyone on this team wanted to be here.
“Everyone wanted to be at the pool, everyone wanted to play for each other. You can tell this team absolutely loves each other and that’s reflected by the way they play.”
Initially on Saturday, Feb. 18, the Falcons looked a little like a young club playing in its first championship-type game as a unit. There was some timidity on offense, a lack of aggressiveness on defense and sporting one-goal leads, they relinquished tying goals in the waning seconds of each of the first two quarters. The two teams went into the halftime break tied at three.
While the third session proved to be pivotal for Torrey Pines, Carman’s charges got a nice jolt of energy at the close of the second. Right after Bonita Vista scored what seemed to be a momentum building third goal, Baron star Olivia Gutierrez was tagged with her third personal foul, leaving her on the bench for the second half and seriously limiting Bonita Vista’s offensive options.
Freshman Finley McNamara’s second goal of the day, converting a pass from sophomore Ryland Smith just 23 seconds into the third, pushed Torrey back into the lead, 4-3, but, like clockwork, defending CIF D-III champ Bonita Vista responded 20 seconds later to again equalize. Things were quiet for a stretch but with 2:53 to go in the period, a huge play by Smith was the catalyst for the contest’s most crucial stretch.
Junior Sophia Press fed the ball down low to Smith, the 5-10 lefty turned, split two defenders and rifled the ball past the BV goalie for a 5-4 lead the Falcons would never surrender. The tally seemed to invigorate Smith and her teammates who became more assertive on both ends of the pool.
Soon thereafter, Smith again had possession, facing another double team to the right of the cage. She alertly fired a cross pool pass to junior Leah Adler who, with a defender closing, looped it right back cross cage over the goalie—6-4. Smith was at it again with just over a minute on the clock, delivering the ball up top to junior Anisa Anaya who extended the lead to three with a great catch and shoot finish. Smith was not surprised by the flood of goals.
“When I’m double-teamed, that usually means Fin or someone else is open,” said Smith. “It’s about getting it to the open player and we’ve got a lot of great shooters—that’s how we get a lot of our goals.
“When our team gets hot, we just keep going—we score a lot.”
Heading into the final seven minutes with a 7-4 edge, Carman’s charges were tested quickly by a rough patch that included a pair of exclusions, a Bonita Vista penalty shot and Press being sent off with her third personal. The Falcons were able to escape unscathed on each occasion. Then, when the Barons did score on a long lob with 4:23 remaining, they were able to maintain their composure, eventually icing the verdict on a penalty shot conversion by Smith inside of two minutes. Smith said there was no panic amid the late challenges, even after Bonita Vista drew back to within two goals.
“We had been playing tough defense and we knew we just had to keep doing a good job,” said Smith. “Our offense put us in position to win the game and I knew we had the defense to keep us there.”
On the afternoon, Smith accounted for three goals with McNamara and Adler netting two apiece. Sophomore goalie Campbell Bush made eight saves including a couple of big ones with the game still on the line in the fourth quarter.
Smith and McNamara, who have piled up over 200 goals between them on the season, form a somewhat unlikely power pair on a somewhat improbable championship outfit. As part of the relatively inexperienced Torrey Pines lineup, freshman McNamara, with six years of water polo experience in pocket, often serves as a bit of a mentor for less practiced teammates, even the talented Smith.
“Sometimes it seems a little weird, but I’ve improved a lot and Fin’s knowledge has helped me and the team so much,” said Smith. “We work really well together.”
A softball travel team veteran, a natural at first base with her size and southpaw orientation, Smith fell hard for water polo when she tried out for the Falcon team as a freshman.
“Last high school season was my first time ever playing water polo and I loved it,” she said. “When I fall in love with a sport, I give it my all.
“I joined Shores Water Polo Club, played there in the spring, summer and fall seasons, and came back a lot better player. I’m much more confident in my shots, learned how to skip the ball and just understand the game so much better.”
Even though Torrey Pines’ rise in 2022-23 surprised a large majority of the local water polo community, it was something newcomer McNamara sensed pretty early.
“With how Torrey Pines had done last year, I was a little worried going into the season,” said McNamara, who was still battling through a week-long illness Saturday, Feb. 18. “But once I met the coaches and players, I started feeling like we had a team that could go far.
“Everyone had great chemistry and it felt like there was a lot of potential. We weren’t where we are now at the beginning of the season, but you could see how we could get there.”
And now that they’re “there,” Carman can visualize them staying. “It makes others recognize us as a legitimate water polo school which can help us grow the program,” he said. “With no seniors, it’s easy to see how bright our future is and when younger players come there will be some really good role models to look up to.” Champions, as a matter-of-fact.
With the victory, Torrey Pines’ season will continue Tuesday, Feb. 21, in the CIF SoCal Regional Tournament where they will be seeded fourth and host No. 5 seed Palisades at Rancho Bernardo High School. Game time is 6:30 p.m.
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