Both Arroyo Grande High boys water polo coach Steven Allen and senior Ryan Sverchek walked away from Tuesday’s 13-9 home loss to Malibu encouraged by what they saw.
Yes, there were some defensive breakdowns, but the offensive output against the top-ranked team in CIF-Southern Section Division 6 had the pair optimistic heading into the second half of the season.
“I thought we played probably our best game of the season against a really high level team,” said Allen, whose team is ranked fifth in Division 4. “Offensively, we played the best we’ve played all year, and defensively, we made some mistakes, but we’re getting better.”
Added Sverchek: “We just worked a lot better on our offensive counter attack, which had been lacking. Today, we proved that we can use it and use it well.”
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It was the counter attack going the other way that dictated the run of play for most of the game.
Owen Franz scored seven goals for the Sharks, getting behind the Eagles’ defense on the counter to earn point-blank opportunities on goalkeeper Ronan Paulson.
Paulson finished with eight saves, but Franz scored four times on breakaways — including the first two goals of the game — and tallied a long-range goal on the opening possession of the fourth quarter to put Malibu ahead 11-5.
“They had some early counter attacks that took advantage of our defense,” Allen said. “Really, some mistakes on the offensive end that gave them one-on-nobody’s the other way.”
Sverchek kept the Eagles in it early, scoring their first three goals to give him 15 on the season.
“Ryan’s really becoming an offensive threat for us that we didn’t expect,” Allen said. “He’s definitely our spark plug, and we’re really happy with how he’s playing.”
Sverchek is one of a handful of Arroyo Grande players tasked with trying to fill a massive scoring void vacated by the graduation of last year’s top four goal scorers, including Jack Empey’s 115.
“I used to be more of a passer,” Sverchek said, “so being one of those guys that the team passes the ball to is kind of nice.”
Sverchek said the defensive miscues began in the offensive end, where players weren’t quick enough to get back in transition.
“It’s always being ready to come to defense,” he said. “Everyone wants to shoot the ball, but sometimes, you’ve got to give up your opportunity to score and play for the team.”
Josh Smith, who leads the team in scoring, had a goal, and co-captain Conner Sandman had a pair.
“We have a really great shooter in Conner Sandman, and we’re going to have to come together as a team,” Sverchek said. “One man can do so much, but a whole team can do a lot more.”
Ryan Hoover, Josh Jewell and Ethan Klemowicz also tallied goals for the Eagles, who were foiled by the crossbar and posts nearly as much as opposing keepers Dax Nittolo and Charlie Dijker.
“We’ve been really struggling to get quality shots, and I thought we got off some quality shots,” Allen said. “A couple hit the bar, rolled around and just wouldn’t go in for us.”
And every time the ball would ricochet back into play, Franz was leaking out to take advantage at the other end.
“After playing against him for four years now, he’s definitely a threat,” said Sverchek, whose team fell to Malibu 14-8 in 2013. “We had a guy last year that teams couldn’t shut down, and some teams have that. He’s a great water polo player.”
It was the highest scoring output in a loss this season for Arroyo Grande (4-6), which entered Tuesday averaging 12.8 goals per win and 6.4 goals in defeats.
At this point in the season, Allen said, he’s far more concerned with seeing progress than wins.
And that’s why not all was lost against the Sharks (8-2).
“I just take away the positives,” he said. “The record doesn’t mean anything to me. We match our schedule up against some of the best teams, and some years the record looks like it.”