No matter who you are, there are nerves in the first match of the season.
Even for the Sacred Heart Prep boys’ water polo team — annually one of the top teams in the country.
But head coach Brian Kreutzkamp was wary as his team faced rival Menlo School in what was not only the West Catholic Athletic League opener for both squads — it was the Gators’ first match of the 2019 season. With six players making their varsity debuts, Kreutzkamp wasn’t sure what to expect.
So when SHP looked tentative in the opening seven minutes and the Knights took it to the Gators for a 2-0 lead after one period, Kreutzkamp’s worst fears were being realized.
But, c’mon. It’s SHP water polo. The Gators stabilized themselves in the second period, scoring four times to tie the score at 4-all at halftime. They took a 6-5 lead late in the third quarter and pulled away in the fourth for a 10-5 victory.
“For the first game of the season, with this young of a team, I’m pleased,” Kreutzkamp said. “The one thing we can do is swim and you saw that in fourth quarter.”
SHP had six players score, led by Luke Johnston, Isaac Rotenberg and Bear Weigle, who each scored two goals apiece. Weigle and Luke Hammarskjold added two assists each.
Menlo was led in scoring by Noah Housenbold, who scored a match-high three goals. Jack Murad and Connor MacMitchell rounded out the scoring for the Knights.
The match really turned on the Gators’ last goal of the third period and the first goal of the fourth. In each instance, the Menlo defense did what it was supposed to do and Knights’ goaltender Josh Poulos came up with the block each time.
But rebounds popped out directly to SHP players, who wasted little time putting the ball in the back of the net. Weigle was the first recipient of the fortuitous bounce, getting a putback goal to put the Gators ahead for good, 6-5. Johnston was the beneficiary of the second, as he grabbed a rebound and buried it to put SHP up 7-5 early in the fourth.
It took three quarters for the Gators to really get their running game going, to use a basketball term. But when they started getting out on the fastbreak, Menlo couldn’t keep up. Nursing a one-goal lead going into the fourth, the Gators got their transition game going as they pulled away by outscoring the Knights 4-0 over the final seven minutes.
“They did a much better job of finding the counter lanes,” said Menlo head coach Jack Bowen. “They sort of countered our counter.”
Early on, however, it was Menlo taking it to SHP. The Knights were suffocating the Gators in their half-court offense and then over-worked the SHP defense. Menlo opened the scoring with 3:06 left in the first period when Jack King found Housenbold in the hole set. As he was being dragged underwater, Housenbold managed to not only get off the shot, but score for a 1-0 Knights’ lead. Menlo made it 2-0 on a goal from Murad, who deked from the outside before slipping a shot past the goaltender on the shortside.
Defensively, the Knights had the Gators thinking way too much in that first quarter. Menlo did a good job of clamping down on the SHP hole set, collapsing two, and something three, defenders to keep the big men from getting loose.
It was during the first period that the Gators looked most vulnerable and their varsity inexperienced showed.
But in the second period, the Gators started playing like the teams of old. When they got on the scoreboard less than 30 seconds into the second quarter, when Swart scored off a pass from Hammarskjold, SHP finally settled down.
“I thought they were trying to be too cute (in the first period),” Kreutzkamp said of his team. “Then all of the sudden, after we score, they started to play loose and relaxed.”
Menlo got the goal back on a score from MacMitchell in the set, but SHP scored the next two goals to tie the score. Jake Tsotadze scored on a penalty shot and Rotenberg knotted the game at 3-all with a power-play goal from the right point.
SHP goaltender Wyatt Stenson, filling in for an injured Griffen Price, earned an assist on Weigle’s goal to cap a three unaswered-goal run.
But Menlo entered halftime tied at 4 when Housenbold took a midpool pass from MacMitchell and with a defender draped on him, used his strength to hold off the defender and score with three seconds left in the half.
In the second half, SHP slowly and steadily started to take control of the game. Although Menlo took a 5-4 lead on a goal from Housenbold, SHP went on to score the final six goals to pull away in the fourth quarter.
“We had to run uptempo,” Kreutzkamp said. “After that first quarter, I really wanted to try to pick up the tempo. Switch from slowdown to run and gun and get us swimming a little bit.”
Bowen was under no illusions about what to expect from SHP. He said his team’s title record in the Scott Roche Invitational tournament came against three, top-level teams in Clovis-North, Buchanan and Monte Vista-Danville.
“Prep is supposed to be better than all of them,” Bowen said. “We just played the top team in our league and played with them for three periods.”