Nathan Mollat/Daily Journal
Menlo School’s Chris Xi, right, gets a pass away as Menlo-Atherton’s Dimitri Herr defends during the Knights’ 8-7 win over the Bears in a PAL Bay Division showdown Wednesday afternoon.
Jack Bowen, Menlo School’s boys’ water polo coach, is one of the most calm, introspective, philosophical — serene — coaches you will ever see on a sideline.
During Wednesday’s key match with rival Menlo-Atherton, however, Bowen was a raving lunatic — by his standards. He paced, yelled, encouraged, cajoled and fist pumped his squad to a key 8-7 win over the Bears.
“Maybe I was feeling a little more pressure on myself,” Bowen said. “Honestly, I had a strange feeling I let the team down last year.”
Menlo-Atherton supplanted Menlo School as the top dog in the Bay Division last year, the first time in 18 years Menlo did not win a league championship. Wednesday’s win, however, gives the Knights a two-game lead over the Bears and all but clinched the Bay Division title for Menlo with four PAL matches left to play.
Menlo swept the Bears in two matches this season.
“This is a little bit of intra-personal retribution,” Bowen said. “This team prepared so much for this game. … The exciting thing was, M-A was clearly prepared, too.”
The match could not have been any closer and was decided in the final minute. Menlo-Atherton (4-2 PAL Bay) rallied from a two-goal deficit in the fourth period, tying the score at 7 with 1:23 left in regulation on a goal from John Knox off an assist from Mostyn Fero.
The Bears nearly stole the ball on the restart and, with the ball bobbing loose, Weston Avery swam over and made the play of the match.
Avery scooped up the ball at midpool and swam toward the side, with a M-A defender in hot pursuit. Avery turned the corner and, with the defender on his shoulder, drove past him and on goal. The defender’s only choice was to foul Avery, who drew a 5-meter penalty shot with 47 seconds left to play. Nick Bisconti set up and buried the ensuing penalty into the right corner of the cage to put the Knights up 8-7.
The Bears had one last chance to tie the match, but could not get off a shot coming out of timeout with seven seconds left.
“I just saw the ball there,” Avery said. “I was going for the goal but, when I felt the defender on my back, I could have tried for the kickout or the 5-meter shot.”
The burst of speed even caught off guard Avery, who has been swimming his whole life.
“I don’t think I usually go that fast,” Avery said. “It was an adrenaline rush.”
Bowen said Avery’s goal late in the third period set up his drive late in the fourth.
“The fact he is such a threat (to shoot), the defender has to defend him that much harder,” Bowen said. “He took a circuitous route (to the goal). That one move will be a snapshot of Weston Avery.”
There is no question not much separates these two squads. Menlo (6-0, 14-2 overall) took the first meeting between the two teams 10-8 in the Bay Division opener and, while the Bears closed the gap a little bit more the second time around, Menlo had enough to hold them off.
Twice in the first period, the Bears took a goal lead, only to see the Knights come right back to tie the score.
The first four-plus minutes of the first period was a defensive battle before M-A finally cracked the scoreboard on a goal from Knox, who converted a 5-meter penalty shot with 2:37 to play in the opening quarter.
Menlo came right back, however, tying the score 21 seconds later on a shot from Tegan Nibbi. About 30 seconds later, the Bears took a 2-1 lead on a Jack Beasley score but, 13 seconds after that, the match was tied again following Bisconti’s first goal of the match.
Menlo went on to score the first three goals of the second period to take a 5-2 lead and never trailed again. Chris Xi’s goal with 3:55 to play before halftime gave the Knights a 3-2 lead. Bisconti — off an assist from Andreas Katsis — put Menlo up 4-2 with 2:46 to play and Katsis capped the scoring flurry with a goal off an assist from Avery.
M-A got a goal back with 47 seconds remaining from Jace Blazensky to cut the Bears’ deficit to 5-3.
The Bears had a chance to make it a one-goal game with mere seconds to play in the half when Blazensky had a 1-on-1 with Menlo goaltender John Wilson. Blazensky fired off his shot from close range, but Wilson blocked it.
That block proved to be crucial because the Bears scored the first two goals of the third period on shots from Matt Baszucki and Fero, which tied the match at 5-all.
Menlo responded, however, by scoring the next two goals to take a 7-5 lead going into the final seven minutes. Xi’s second goal of the match gave the Knights a 6-5 lead and Avery’s goal off an assist from Bisconti gave Menlo a two-goal advantage.
M-A responded with goals from Baszucki and Knox to tie the match and set up the final dramatic minutes.
“It means so much (to beat M-A), after losing to them last year,” Avery said.