The 2013 Central Coast Section water polo finals will bring together a lot of familiar teams, but also will provide a variety of story lines for veteran coaches and historically successful programs.
The Sacred Heart Prep girls will be seeking an unprecedented seventh straight Division II title. The Sacred Heart Prep boys will be playing in their ninth straight championship match. Castilleja will be seeking a first-ever title under its Olympic gold-medalist coach. The Menlo School boys are back in the Division II finals after missing out last season. And, the Menlo-Atherton boys will have another shot at Bellarmine in Division I in a rematch of last year's finale.
And then there are the Gunn girls and their head coach, Mark Hernandez.
"I think I may be the only coach in CCS history to take a boys and girls team to the CCS championship game," Hernandez said.
Hernandez coached the Gunn boys to the Division II title match in 2004. The Titans, however, fell to Bellarmine, 16-7.
Now, Hernandez has his Gunn girls in the Division I finals, thanks to an 11-5 victory over No. 6-seeded Leland (18-11) on Wednesday night at Menlo-Atherton High.
"This is probably the biggest win in school history, because it puts us in our first CCS championship game in school history," Hernandez said. "It was also probably our best game of the year."
Senior Caroline Anderson led the way with three goals while sisters Natasha and Bianca Batista each had two goals, as did Erica Watkins.
"Caroline was brilliant, as she always is," Hernandez said. "She worked hard on both ends of the course, and had to work hard to get her shots, but she imposed her will on the game. She set the tone and played with an inspiring desire to win.
"(Goalie) Sam Acker also made some remarkable saves. Leland is very good at attacking the goal, at creating some point-blank shots, and they are relentless; but Sam was unafraid, and rose to the occasion. But, the entire team played well. After the first quarter, we trailed 2-0. At the quarter break, there was no panic; we talked about how all our shots had been blocked by the goalposts, and that they would start to go in. Sure enough, we scored five goals in the second, and took the lead into halftime."
At halftime, Hernandez talked with his players about their season.
"We scheduled the way we did -- as difficult an out-of-conference schedule as we could put together -- precisely for games like tonight. We've been battle-tested all season, and knew how to play tough, close games against good teams. We've spent all year preparing to play what we've called 'playoff water polo', in which we have balanced scoring and play smart, physical defense."
In this case, mission accomplished.
"Leland did a good job limiting Caroline, holding her to one of her lowest goal totals of the year," Hernandez said. "But five other girls scored, and accounted for eight goals. From the beginning, we knew we needed other players to score, and they came through tonight."
The victory moved Gunn into the CCS Division I finals on Saturday, a test against top-seeded St. Francis (25-2) at the George F. Haines International Swim Center in Santa Clara at 1 p.m.
"As expected, the final test for us is the most difficult -- St. Francis," Hernandez said. "They're obviously an elite team that won't beat themselves. So, we just need to find a way to beat them."
The Lancers advanced with an 18-6 romp over No. 4 Menlo-Atherton (17-9).
Boys Division II
Stanford-bound senior Harrison Enright poured in five goals to pace top-seeded Sacred Heart Prep to a 16-8 dunking of No. 5 Soquel (21-8) in the semifinals Wednesday night at Serra High. The Gators (25-3) also got four goals from Will Conner and three each from fellow juniors Nelson Perla-Ward and Michael Swart.
The two-time defending champion Gators will take on neighborhood rival and No. 2 seed Menlo School in Saturday's title match at 10 a.m.
SHP will be playing in its 11th straight title match and will be seeking a seventh section title since 2003. SHP has won five of the past six section crowns. Sacred Heart Prep and Menlo will be meeting in the finals for the seventh time in 11 years, with Menlo holding a 4-3 advantage in the series.
In the first semifinal at Serra, Andreas Katsis scored four goals and goalie John Wilson came up with 16 saves, as Menlo School (23-3) advanced to the finals with an 11-4 victory over No. 3 St. Ignatius (19-8).
The Knights earned their first trip to the section finals since 2010 and will be looking for a sixth crown since coach Jack Bowen took over as head coach in 2000. When Menlo last won a CCS title, it did so by beating SHP, 11-5.
Menlo came out against SI exhibiting its typical team-oriented defense that was anchored by Wilson. Among his saves were a number of point-blank shots and a penalty shot.
"John is such a solid, consistent goalie," said Bowen. "He continues to solidify himself as one of the top goalkeepers in the country."
Menlo had eight different players with assists while five scored goals, five earned ejections, and six had steals. Tegan Nibbi, Nick Bisconti and Chris Xi all had two goals for the Knights.