As his eyes welled up with tears, Michael Gonzales talked about the long months of devotion and dedication by his South Pasadena High School water polo team to reach the doorstep of the CIF championship game.
“There are no words to describe how proud we are of them,” said Tigers’ coach Michael Gonazales, who alongside his assistant Sean Grab, huddled with his team for 25 minutes following the Tigers’ 8-6 loss to Redondo Union in Wednesday’s semifinal match at Pasadena City College. “The body of work that they have put together in 13 weeks has been incredible.”
The size difference, with the Tigers facing a bigger squad in Redondo Union, was a problem for his team, admitted Gonzales. “We love to run out in transition. We compensated so much in help defense, we just couldn’t get out and run, and couldn’t find open water.”
In other words, South Pas was outmatched by a strong playoff savvy team in the Sea Hawks, who went to the CIF semifinals a year ago and know what’s it’s like to go deep in the playoffs.
“At some point the stage was really going to show to be a little too big for us, and it did in the semifinals,” said Gonzales, noting that he’s already looking forward to next season.
The Tigers will lose five seniors to graduation next June, but Gonzales is confident he can bring his club back to the same place and beyond, finding itself battling for a CIF crown in 2018.
While South Pasadena ended its season with a 25-11 record, including an 8-2 mark in the Rio Hondo League, Redondo Union takes its 24-10 mark in the CIF championship Saturday against Walnut, which beat Temple City 13-10 Wednesday in the other semifinal match.
The Sea Hawks, who got past Santiago 6-3 in the CIF quarterfinals on Tuesday, came into Wednesday’s semifinal with little rest, and were held scoreless in the first period as the Tigers grabbed a 2-0 lead on shots by Phillip Lee.
“We didn’t have our offense on fire, but defensively we were okay,” explained Redondo Union Coach Chris Murin of the Sea Hawk’s slow start.
On the other side, Gonzales liked the idea that his club came out of the blocks with plenty of confidence and a mindset it could compete with one of the Southland’s finest water polo teams. “It was good execution of our game plan early on,” he said. “But their size was a little imposing and started to become problematic for us.”
That especially became evident as Redondo Union came back to score four straight goals in the second quarter to lead 4-2 at the half.
The Tigers’ Dominic Kline found the Redondo Union net with a shot at the 4:32 mark of the third quarter to make it a one-point game, 4-3, but the Sea Hawks charged back with two more goals to extend their lead 6-3 at the end of the third period.
The South Pasadena fan base erupted with excitement as the Tigers scored twice within two minutes to open the fourth quarter on shots by Kline and Lee, while closing the gap to one, 6-5, with plenty of time on the clock.
Following a Redondo Union timeout, the Sea Hawks quieted the South Pas crowd by scoring with 3:50 left to go and grabbing a two-point advantage. Seconds later, however, the never-say-die Tigers were back driving on offense as Kline scored again, bringing South Pasadena to within one, 7-6.
With the clock winding down, Redondo Union iced it with 1:10 left when Ethan Igloi found an opening in the Tigers’ net, giving his team a two-point cushion.
South Pas kept battling as a last second shot by Kline bounced off the sidebar of the Sea Hawks’ net, but by then there was no time left for a comeback.
Going in, Murin said his team, which had handed the Tigers a tournament loss earlier in the season, would have its hands full against a tough opponent.
“We knew they were going to come to play and fight,” said the Sea Hawks coach. “They played a good, physical game. Give them credit. They fought hard to the end.”
Indeed they did, a tearful Gonzales recognizing he just coached a special group. “We’ve maximized the most out of them as players and as people,” said the Tigers’ coach. “They’ve trusted the process, all 17 of them, and it’s beautiful. I couldn’t be prouder of them. The sacrifices they’ve made are awesome.”