By Keith Peters
Palo Alto Online Sports
The Central Coast Section water polo finals will provide something special for all the local entrants this season when the championships are held Saturday at Independence High in San Jose.
For the Sacred Heart Prep boys and girls, they'll be seeking their fourth straight Division II titles. The girls will be attempting to tie St. Francis for the most consecutive crowns while the boys will be attempting to become the first Division II team to win four straight.
For the Menlo boys, they'll be looking to win their first Division II title since 2006 and, in doing so, ruin SHP's attempt at making some history. The Knights are making their 14th trip to the Division II finals in 15 years, more than any other boys' or girls' team in either division.
For the Menlo-Atherton girls, they'll be making their fourth straight appearance in the Division I finals and will be looking to end a two-year stanglehold on the title by St. Francis. Both those championships were won (and lost) in overtime, so perhaps the Bears will be hoping to keep their finale to regulation, as well.
And, finally, for the Castilleja girls, they'll be searching for their first-ever Division II title in their fifth appearance all-time. The four previous showings wound up with second-place finishes. The Gators hope their coaching staff of Olympians Brenda Villa and Jessica Steffens will make the difference.
While all have their specific goals, only three local teams will accomplish them.
The No. 1-seeded Sacred Heart Prep boys (19-9) will meet No. 2 Menlo (18-6) in the Division II finals at 10 a.m. The No. 1 Sacred Heart girls (25-3) will play No. 3 Castilleja (17-9) at 11:30 a.m., while the No. 1 Menlo-Atherton girls (17-9) take on No. 3 St. Francis (18-8) at 1 p.m.
The Division I boys' finale matches No. 1 St. Francis (19-6) against No. 2 Bellarmine (16-11) at 2:30 p.m.
Of all the matchups Saturday, the Menlo-SHP one is perhaps the most intriguing. The Gators hold two overtime wins over the Knights this season and little separates the two squads.
"This is my sixth year here," said SHP coach Brian Kreutzkamp, "and we've played Menlo five of those six years. Every year there has been a favorite. This year, for the first time, it's 100 percent even."
The teams have senior leaders, outstanding young goalies and strong role players. Jack Bowen (Menlo) and Kreutzkamp are at the top of their coaching fields and each have enjoyed being thrown in the pool following championship victories.
Both could get wet Saturday long before the final buzzer, however. Rain is supposed to pelt the area, which could affect play along with the early start time.
"It'll be who's going to adjust better," Kreutzkamp said.
Both teams adjusted well in their respective semifinals.
Menlo shut down Los Altos scoring leader Colin Mulcahy on the way to an 18-6 victory while Sacred Heart Prep got eight goals from senior Philip Bamberg and escaped with a 12-11 win over No. 4 Soquel.
"Our defense was phenomenal," Bowen said. "It was the best game we've played this year."
Menlo senior John Holland-McCowan was the primary defensive stopper on Mulcahy, with Nick Hale contributing. Hale also had eight steals to go with four goals while Holland-McCowan added three goals along with his defensive performance. Goalkeeper Keegan Williams shut down most major threats with 11 saves. Junior Jack Lucas and senior Kyle Bowman each scored five goals, both career highs, while Lucas added six assists. Menlo grabbed a 10-2 halftime lead and was never threatened.
SHP had a much different match, trailing by three midway through the third period. Bamberg then scored three of his eight goals in the fourth quarter, including the eventual game-winner. Three goals came on 5-meter penalty shots. SHP sophomore goalie Will Runkel continued his excellent first season as a starter and had 16 saves.
That brings us to Saturday, where Menlo and SHP will be meeting in the finals for the seventh time. Each team is 3-3 against the other. Overall, Menlo has won five CCS titles and Sacred Heart Prep has four. In the past 10 years, the teams have captured nine section crowns between them.
"One of the teams could win by five goals," Bowen said. "But, if you're a betting person . . . you have to expect it'll be a close one."
Menlo-Atherton will be looking for only its second CCS title ever after rallying for a 4-3 victory over No. 4 Gunn in a semifinal Wednesday night in the Bears' pool.
M-A senior MJ O'Neill scored the winning goal in the fourth period, earning the Bears another showdown with St. Francis (18-8), which upended No. 2 Leland, 4-3, in the other semifinal.
Gunn (22-6), making its first-ever appearance in the semifinals, actually held a 3-2 lead after Lauren Leysna scored her third goal midway through the third period. The Bears battled back with Emily Gran scoring her second goal for a 3-3 match, setting up O'Neill's game-winner in the final quarter. M-A senior goalie Emily Dorst had 17 saves, the biggest coming on a point-blank shot by Gunn's Elizabeth Anderson on a breakaway midway through the third period.
In CCS Division II action:
With Sarah Westcott pouring in five goals, Sacred Heart Prep swamped St. Ignatius, 14-8, in the section semifinals on Wednesday night at Lynbrook High in San Jose.
The top-seeded Gators (25-3) led by only 5-3 at halftime, but a 6-1 outburst in the third quarter made all the difference. Senior goalie Catherine Donahoe had 14 saves while Emily Parsons and Erin Sheridan each added three goals for SHP.
"Overall, I thought our team played really well," said SHP coach Jon Burke. "We struggled in the first half with turnovers, but were able to regroup and play a better second half. We converted a few counterattack goals early in the third quarter and that helped create some momentum for us.
"Scoring on our 6-on-5 also played a large role in the game. Our seniors played great and showed a lot of leadership. Our team has worked hard all season trying to get to the CCS championship game. It is always our goal to play in the finals, and we're excited to once again have that opportunity."
Meanwhile, Castilleja advanced to its second CCS Division II final in three years with a 5-4 victory over Los Altos. The Gators' defense stood out with goalie Sallie Walecka getting 17 saves, while seniors Barbara Peterson (three) and Natasha von Kaeppler (two) accounted for all the scoring.
Walecka blocked a 5-meter penalty shot with under five minutes to play in the match and her team trailing, 4-3. A few minutes later, von Kaeppler scored to tie the match. Peterson provided the game-winning goal with under two minutes left to play.
"I wasn't too surprised with the Castilleja score," Burke said. "I really thought it was a tossup, who would win that game."
Sacred Heart Prep is 2-0 against Castilleja this season, posting 13-6 and 6-4 wins.
"I expect it to be a great game on Saturday," Burke said. "Hard to say whether it's going to be a high-scoring or low-scoring affair."