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November 24, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Menlo girls make splash in CCS finals Menlo girls make splash in CCS finals (November 24, 2004)

by Keith Peters

Kyle Utsumi knew his Menlo School girls' water polo team was in a youthful stage this season. One only had to look at goalie, where freshman Elise Ponce held forth.

Utsumi, however, never gave into a rebuilding frame of mine. Nor did he ever shortchange his team's chances. Not once did the Knights ever talk about waiting until next year.

"That was exactly what I wanted this team to avoid," Utsumi said. "We definitely didn't want that on their minds. It was a theme all year long that we felt we could contend. We wanted to end the season with no excuses."

The season ended for Menlo on Saturday. There were no excuses, just a CCS championship trophy that was earned with a 6-5 triumph over four-time defending champion St. Francis at Independence High in San Jose.

Menlo's victory was sandwiched between two local losses. The Gunn boys opened the championship day with a 16-7 loss to six-time defending champ Bellarmine in the Division I finale, while the Menlo boys were shocked by St. Francis, 8-5, in the Division II title match.

Those setbacks put the focus squarely on the Menlo girls, who battled throughout the season to prove to doubters that they had what it took to win their first CCS title since 1998. Since that last championship was long before any current player joined the team, Utsumi knew it would be a disservice for this season's seniors to wait any further. They had, after all, lost twice in the semifinals and once in the finals, 9-8 in double-overtime to St. Francis in 2002.

"You just never know when you're going to get back to the finals," Utsumi said. "You don't know when you'll get that chance again."

So Menlo accepted the underdog role at times and took the No. 5 seed for the tournament as a challenge, because the Knights knew better.

"We felt, even as the No. 5 seed, we could contend . . . we focused on every game. I wanted them to have goals and achieve them now, and not wait until next year."

Menlo's senior class of Emily Allen, Becca Closs, Kelsey Haley, Lauren Keeley and Brianna Schwanke couldn't be happier. They hoisted their first CCS trophy after the game, the fourth in school history for the girls' program.

"We had to prove ourselves in every game to get to the finals," said Haley, who scored three goals in the title match, including the game-winner with only 1:13 left to play. "This is definitely a dream come true."

Helping it along the way were sophomores Megan Burmeister, Kim Krueger and Camy Sullivan. All scored while Ponce, the precocious freshman, played like a veteran in the cage, stopping a final shot before St. Francis called time with 23 seconds left.

Menlo's swarming defense resulted in a final stop, however, which was appropriate since the Knights' defense is what won the game. The Lancers were denied easy shots and passes, often pushed into position where passes became longer and easier to pick off.

Menlo, meanwhile, took a 3-0 lead and held on.

"St. Francis is the champion of our sport," Utsumi said. "We knew they would come back. It was important, then, to let our girls know they had to respond to that challenge."

And they did.

Boys Division I

It was David against Goliath. This time, however, the big guy won.

That would be Bellarmine, winner of 18 of the previous 21 CCS Division I titles including six straight and 12 of the past 13 before Saturday's lopsided victory over the Titans.

"They've got so many quality players, and they all know how to run the system," said Gunn coach Mark Hernandez. "Any mistake and you're really punished. The only way you're going to beat Bellarmine is to have incredible plays, and we couldn't come up with them."

Gunn (24-11) did come within 4-3 after Arjan Ligtenberg converted a four-meter penalty shot and fellow senior Anthony Young added an outside shot.

"When we made it 4-3, I thought maybe we could make it a game," Hernandez said. "Then they subbed in four new guys who were all fresh, fast and good."

Bellarmine scored twice more for a 6-3 halftime lead before pulling away in the third quarter with a 6-0 outburst. Gunn lost one of its scoring leaders, junior Kyle Gertridge, to a red card in the fourth quarter when he questioned an official's call. By that time, however, the match was over. Ligtenberg, at 6-foot-9 the tallest and one of the most dominant defensive players in the section, was neutralized early when his opponent on offense simply swam to the side and kept Ligtenberg from being involved.

"They took him out of the game," said Hernandez, who was hardly disappointed with the outcome.

"We talked about winning a quarter," he said. "You don't want to take those large steps until you take a small one . . . It's nice to get this far and do what we did today. This is the high-rent district. There are a lot of other teams out there who would be happy with being beaten by Bellarmine 16-7 in the finals.

"For a team that has lost three years in a row in the first round, this is great. We practiced on the last day that we could. We took it as far as we could."

Division II

Menlo (29-6) also took it as far as it could, but the top-seeded Knights had hoped for a better finish than the 8-5 setback at the hands of St. Francis (27-7).

"These guys look as this as a failure, to some extent," said Menlo head coach Jack Bowen. "We were excited and prepared to win that game."

Instead, the Lancers pressured every Menlo shot and pass and wound up forcing the Knights out of their game.

"They came out shooting and we let them get their legs set," Bowen said. "We gave them too much time on top with the ball."

St. Francis wound up with too many open shots, which they converted. After a 4-4 deadlock, the Lancers scored four unanswered goals to take an 8-4 lead into the fourth period. At that point, St. Francis concentrated on shutting the Knights down, which they did with the exception of Deitrich Graumann's lone goal in the fourth.

Menlo sophomore Ben Hohl scored twice in the first quarter and then was blanked, finally forced away from the hole set by the Lancers' pressing defense.

"They did a really good job of putting pressure on Ben at the right time," Bowen said. "Once Ben got pushed out of the post, it made it more difficult for us."

Even Stanford-bound goalie Jimmie Sandman couldn't save the Knights.

"We have put so much faith in Jimmie," Bowen said. "Today we were relying on him too much. No one player is going to win the game.

"It's tough losing the your last game of the season, but everyone but one does. I still think it was a tremendously successful season."

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