As the final minutes of the 22nd Annual Scott Roche Invitational Tournament wound down, the sun broke through the gray heavens.
It was if the spirit of Roche, a former water polo player for Menlo School, was shining down on Gates Pool on a gorgeous fall Saturday afternoon. The host Knights held off Monte Vista-Danville 12-10 to win their ninth Roche title as members of Roche’s family looked on. Roche, who went on to play water polo for Princeton, died in a car accident in 1998 at the age of 24.
Needless to say, it was an emotional victory for Menlo coach Jack Bowen.
“Winning the Roche is really special,” said Bowen, whose Knights are 5-0. “There is some sentimental value to it. I’m a proud coach (today).”
The Mustangs featured two players on the U-17 National Team — Mark Laurlund and CJ Indart. Laurlund had five goals, four in the first half.
“Monte Vista not only has those two phenomenal players, they don’t have a single player you can leave and shy away from,” Bowen said. “They run a system that highlights every single player. When a team has two or three really good players, they try to hide the bad ones. You have to play team-oriented defense. If you cheat off of two guys, they make you pay for it.”
The key sequence came in the third quarter when the Knights rallied from 7-4 down to reel off five unanswered goals for a 9-7 lead heading into the final stanza.
“Monte Vista was pushing us around,” Bowen said. “They were big, fast and strong. We could have folded at the end of a long weekend, but we stepped up and scored five unanswered goals. That’s a lot of character.”
The Knights had a balanced attack with Greg Hilderbrand scoring four goals. Southpaw Connor Enright and Noah Housenbold had three goals apiece, and Connor MacMitchell scored two.
Menlo jumped to a 2-0 lead after having two shots on goal stopped by Monte Vista goalie Jamie Steingraf. Housenbold drew a 5-meter penalty as Hilderbrand capitalized at the 5:45 mark in the first period. Over a minute later, Hilderbrand’s shot attempt hit the post, but MacMitchell was there to put in the rebound.
Facing a 3-goal deficit, Enright, who will play at Brown University next year, scored on a power play. Enright assisted cross-pool to Hilderbrand, who scored with 2:52 left in the third period. Taking advantage of another man-up situatino, Hilderbrand pumped three times before rifling a shot past Steingraf, tying things 7-all.
In one of the best goals of the day, Housenbold made a bold move, spinning and scoring, the ball somehow going through three Mustangs defenders. Enright scored from 10 meters out with 12 seconds to go in the period, the Knights’ electric run officially over.
“That was the best team we played so far,” Enright said of Monte Vista. “They have some talented guys. They’re a younger team, but they are good competition for us.”
Playing well in the cage for the Knights was Josh Poulos, who totaled eight saves.
“He always has our back,” said Enright of Poulos. “When they put us a nice shot, we trust him to block it and we counter the other way.”
Menlo can use this intense match as a tuneup for its new league — the West Catholic Athletic League. The WCAL, led by Sacred Heart Prep and Bellarmine — is considered the premium water polo league in the Central Coast Section.
“Monte Vista wasn’t in this tournament last year, so I wanted to bring them in,” Bowen said. “Bringing stronger teams in makes us better. I gave us the most difficult path. We played Clovis North in the semifinal and Buchanan in the semifinal. I wanted to get the toughest teams. We wanted to play in the WCAL.”
The WCAL, the kind of league Roche would have loved to play in.