Menlo-Atherton senior Henry Marks expected this to a rebuilding year. It might turn into a championship season instead.
Marks scored with 36 seconds remaining to play to lift the third-seeded Bears to an 8-7 victory over visiting Gunn in the semifinals of the Central Coast Section boys' Division I water polo tournament Wednesday night.
Junior goalie Noah Smith recorded 12 saves for the Bears, who finished second to Menlo School in the PAL Bay Division. The Bells (20-7) finished second to Sacred Heart Prep in the WCAL. Menlo and the Gators play for the Division II title at 11:30 a.m.
Aaron Babian led the Titans (21-8) with four goals and Jackson Waschura made eight saves. Gunn won the SCVAL De Anza Division title and has been involved in three consecutive one-goal contests, all in postseason play. The Titans are 5-1 in games decided by a single goal this year.
Smith was one of two players, with Nick Caryotakis, who saw any kind of extended action last year on a team dominated by nine seniors.
Not only did the Bears lose all nine guys, they also lost their coach. Brandon Johnson, who had previously coached at Palo Alto, took over this year, immediately going to work on continuing the success of the program.
“It's definitely a rebuilding season,” said Marks, who also scored the game-winner in M-A's 9-8 victory over Palo Alto in the quarterfinals. “We've managed to bond well as a team. I think we proved ourselves this season.”
And then some. The Bears are making their first appearance in a CCS final since 2013 when they lost to Bellarmine.
M-A has participated in every CCS tournament since 2005 and will be appearing in its sixth final since. The Bears are 1-4 in their previous five trips.
Gunn reached the semifinal round for the third consecutive year and made the finals two years ago.
The Johnson brothers made history by being the first trio of siblings to coach different teams in the same tournament.
Brandon gets unofficial bragging rights after beating the Titans, coached by Matt Johnson, and the Vikings, coached by Aaron Johnson, in the tournament.
Gunn has three competitive victories over Paly, including in the title game of the SCVAL tournament.
Marks' winning shot was “not how we drew it up,” Johnson said. “But he made a tremendous adjustment. Noah was the difference. He bailed us out. Noah and the defense will take us as far as we can get.”
Smith missed a little less than two weeks of the season with a hip flexor. It's healed now, though he takes extra precautions. He's looking forward to another challenge.
“I love playing close games,” he said. “It makes things so much better. It's going to be fun.”
Marks is impressed with the way Smith has played this year.
“He's a terrific goalie,” Marks said. “I think he's the best goalie in the CCS. We've learned a lot from him. He's really important to our team.”
Waschura has been playing well too, and was a big reason the Titans were able to rally from a three-goal deficit to take the lead into the final period.
“We had a great third quarter,” Gunn coach Matt Johnson said. “It was a competitive game and about what I expected. When it was 6-on-6, we did a great job. It was one or two little things that gave them the edge.”
Bellarmine beat St. Francis, 8-6, to reach the final.
Girls' Division II
Maddy Johnston and Layla Waters combined to score 14 goals and Sacred Heart Prep (19-9) beat Mitty, 16-5, in the semifinals.
The Gators will be going for their 10th straight CCS title when they meet Soquel in Saturday's 10 a.m. championship match at Independence.
Soquel beat Castilleja, 9-4, to qualify for the final.
Claire Kerrigan and Maddie Pendolino each added a goal and Jane Rakow was only called upon to make a pair of saves, as SH Prep shut out the Monarchs, 8-0, in the first half.
Georgia Lewis made 16 saves for PAL champion Castilleja (18-9), while Claire Pisani scored a pair of goals and Jenna Kotcher and Minhee Chung each a goal.