Nathan Mollat/Daily Journal
Hillsdale’s Kevin Hoffert, left, scored five goals in leading the Knights to a 10-5 win over Mills. With the victory, Hillsdale and Mills finished as co-champs of the Ocean Division, but the Knights advance to a CCS play-in game against the fourth-place team from the Bay Division.
For the Mills boys’ water polo team, the situation was clear: beat Hillsdale Tuesday afternoon and capture the Peninsula Athletic League’s Ocean Division title and advance to Friday’s Central Coast Section play-in game against the No. 4 team from the Bay Division.
Hillsdale’s mission was a lot more convoluted. If the Knights won by a goal, the two teams would finish as Ocean Division co-champs, but the Vikings would advance to the playoff game based on head-to-head goals scored. If the Knights won by two goals, another tiebreaker would be needed to determine who would compete in the play-in game.
A Hillsdale win by three or more goals, the Knights tie for the title, but its season would continue.
Did the Knights know all the math involved in Tuesday’s regular-season finale?
“I did,” said Hillsdale coach Renato Hodzic. “I said we needed to win by three. The guys had that in their minds.”
The Knights did their coach even better, winning by five, 10-5.
Never has there been a bigger dichotomy of co-champions. As the Knights sent Hodzic into the pool — the customary celebration for all water polo champions — the Mills team waited, dejected, to go through the post-match handshake.
Hillsdale (13-1 PAL Ocean) jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead and never trailed the rest of the way. Mills (13-1) tied the match at 2 with 2:46 left to play in the first period, but had to play catch-up the rest of the way as the Knights responded by scoring four unanswered goals to take a 6-2 lead at halftime.
The Vikings outscored the Knights 2-1 in the third period, but the Knights closed out the match by scoring three times in the fourth period.
Tuesday’s match would have meant nothing, however, if not for Hillsdale’s win over Half Moon Bay last Thursday. The Cougars, in third place in the Ocean, gave the Knights everything they could handle before Hillsdale pulled out a 13-11, double-overtime win.
“We knew the game at Half Moon Bay was going to be huge,” Hodzic said. “My guys have been on edge. They’ve been playing championship ball for the last couple days.”
That edge helped the Knights weather an early Mills man-advantage, during which the Vikings came up empty — a preview of things to come for Mills, which went 0 for 9 on the power play.
About 30 seconds later, the Knights went a man up and made the Vikings pay as Thomas Durant took a cross-pool pass from Curtis Cassin and buried his shot to give Hillsdale a 1-0 lead.
The Knights made it 2-0 just over 40 seconds later when Thomas Mirt came up with a steal near midpool and fed a driving Cassin, who fired home a shot in from the wing.
Mills got on the board less than 20 seconds later when Cliff Shaw powered a shot past Hillsdale goalie Tony Pappas, who got a hand on the shot, but couldn’t stop it. The Vikings tied the score at 2 a minute and half later on a goal from Jacob Ng, off an assist from Daniel Yu.
With less than a minute to play in the opening period, the Knights took the lead for good when Kevin Hoffert scored the first of his five goals, off an assist from Javier Rosas. Hoffert got his shot off moments before the shot clock expired, giving Hillsdale a 3-2 lead after one period.
“[Hoffert] stepped up,” Hodzic said.
The Knights then scored all three of the second period’s goals — one from Rosas and a pair from Hoffert. Pappas assisted on two goals and Rosas had the assist on the other.
Mills tried to make a move in the third period. The Vikings closed to 6-3 on a goal from Zane Girouard, but Rosas pushed the Knights’ lead back to four on a breakaway goal. Ng’s second goal of the game with under 30 seconds to play pulled the Vikings to 7-4 going into the final seven minutes.
The Knights finished with a flourish, however. Hoffert scored twice in the final period and Erik Rudberg converted a 5-meter penalty shot for Hillsdale’s final goal.
Ng completed his hat trick for the Knights in the final seconds before the Knights started their celebration.
Hodzic was willing to let anyone but Mills’ Grant Peel score, who is regarded as the best player in the Ocean Division. The Knights geared their defense around Peel and limited him to only a handful of shots for the entire match.
“They have the best player in the league and we planned for him,” Hodzic said. “[Peel’s] an outstanding outside shooter.”
Which worked perfectly into Hillsdale’s hands in the presence of Pappas, who is the best goalie in the Ocean Division and whose forte is stopping the outside shot.
“Anything outside of five meters, I don’t even worry about. That’s a stop for us,” Hodzic said. “[Pappas] had one of his best games today.”
Pappas finished with 14 saves, including six in the fourth period.
“Defensively, the guys executed,” Hodzic said. “They wanted it.”