CLOVIS –The Sanger High Apaches ran out of time and opportunities to claw their way into the championship match of the Central Section Division II water polo playoffs.
The No. 4 seed County Metro Athletic Conference co-champions, faced with a four-goal halftime deficit, aggressively battled back in the second half and closed within a goal with just 13 seconds remaining. But top seed Clovis East was able to run out the clock and earn an 11-10 victory before a large and vocal crowd at Clovis East Aquatics Center on Nov. 7.
That earned the Timberwolves (19-10) a championship date on Saturday, Nov. 11 (time to be determined) at Fresno State against No. 3 seed Garces (23-9), a 16-10 semifinal winner over No. 2 Bullard on Nov. 7. The Apaches finished the campaign at 19-11 after getting edged by Clovis East in the teams’ third meeting this season.
Sanger coach Micha Pavlovic said the first half struggles and four-goal deficit were the difference..
“It’s what we talked about (after the match), it’s a game of inches where position (in the pool) matters,” he said. “We made way too many mistakes in the first half. We’re proud of the boys, but Clovis East earned the win. They made less mistakes than we did.”
Kyle Eoff, Clovis East head coach, said the team’s strategy was to set a defensive tone early.
“We’re definitely a defensive-minded team. I think the boys did that great,” he said. “It takes goals to build the lead but it helps having given up only five goals in the first half. Sanger played a heck of a second half, and gave us a run for our money there at the end.”
Clovis East quickly answered Sanger’s opening salvo, a Tyson Provost goal less than a minute in, with a pair of goals from Dino Valtierra. Bryce Stover and Jag Zwaschka also scored in the opening period as the T-Wolves made it 4-2 after one period.
Senior Jaxon Hoover, who led Sanger with four goals in his final game, scored twice and Ryan Nasalroad also scored in the second period. But goals by Jake Rosa and Zwaschka made it 6-3, and Clovis East sandwiched goals around a score by Hoover to close the half with a 9-5 lead.
“Dino and Jag have been huge for us on the sprints, giving us that one extra possession which adds up to four extra possessions at the end of the game,” Eoff said. “Just like every sport, small details make the difference.”
Hoover and sophomore Eliot Vilanova scored goals early in the third to start Sanger’s comeback bid, and after Marco Escatell scored on a 5-meter penalty shot to make it 10-7 Provost pounced on a loose ball in front of the net to score in the final minute.
The Apaches kept the heat on the final seven minutes, after falling behind again by three following another Escatell goal. Vilanova scored on a long shot from straightaway, and both teams couldn’t convert on strong scoring opportunities. A pivotal moment came with under four minutes to play when Provost swam in on a steal but had his shot rejected by Clovis East goalie Kyler Gilbert.
Sanger had two chances to cut the deficit to one goal thwarted in the final two minutes, before Hoover finally converted on a sizzling shot from straightaway in the closing seconds.
Vilanova and Provost finished with two goals each while Ryan Nasalroad and sophomore Brayden Hammes added one goal each. Apaches sophomore goalie Wyatt McNab made a couple of big saves in the second half to keep the team in striking distance.
“All season what we’ve done is just a showcase of what we’re going to do from now until next fall,” Pavlovic said, “We’re going to put it in the work. Everyone’s going to swim, and we’re going to lift weights. We have some great youth coming up.”