All year, the Arroyo Grande High girls water polo team has had a tendency to make things look easy.
The Eagles opened the season ranked No. 1 in the CIF-Southern Section Division 4 poll and haven’t budged from that spot.
They polished off another unbeaten PAC 7 run along the way, winning their 66th straight league game.
That streak has come in such dominant fashion that they’ve often emptied their bench before halftime. The scores may be getting progressively less lopsided in the postseason, but the end results haven’t changed thus far.
The Eagles defeated Cabrillo 12-8 in the division semifinals on Wednesday afternoon at Cuesta College. Arroyo Grande (29-3), the back-to-back defending Division 4 champion, will be looking for its third straight divisional crown at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at the William Woollett Jr. Aquatic Center in Irvine.
It will be the top-seeded Eagles’ fourth straight trip to the divisional title match, where they’ll face second-seeded Rio Mesa of Oxnard, which routed South Pasadena 12-4 in the other semifinal, for the second year in a row.
“It’s definitely not easy to do,” Arroyo Grande coach Steven Allen said of returning to the final. “With all the hard work we’ve done, we’re really excited to get back there.”
Melanie Johnson led Arroyo Grande with five goals, while Kim Johnson added four. Alexa May had a pair of scores, with Stephanie Stern chipping in the other. Senior goalkeeper Briana Lippert, a Cal recruit and the reigning Division 4 co-Player of the Year, made 11 saves for Arroyo Grande.
“We’re super-excited to make it to the finals again,” Lippert said. “That’s just a huge deal, regardless of what happens.”
The Eagles got out to a 3-0 first-quarter lead Wednesday before the fifth-seeded Conquistadores (22-7), the Los Padres League champion, stayed close the rest of the way, even putting the outcome in momentary doubt at 6-4 and then 9-6.
“We didn’t play as well as we should’ve,” Lippert said. “We’re better than that, giving up some of the shots we did and having some of the turnovers we had.”
The teams previously met Feb. 5 at the Southern California Championships tournament in Irvine, with Arroyo Grande winning 10-3.“I was a little disappointed in how we looked pretty frantic a lot of the time,” Allen said. “I knew it was going to be a lot closer (than the earlier meeting).”
Both times Cabrillo threatened on Wednesday, however, Arroyo Grande promptly answered with three straight tallies.
“I felt like we had the firepower to beat them,” Allen said, “but that it was just going to take some time.”
Katie Leach had five goals for Cabrillo, while Callie Matulis made seven saves in defeat.
Lippert has remained stalwart this season, but a deeper, more experienced offense has already yielded six more wins than last year’s squad compiled. There was a standing room-only crowd at the neutral host site, exemplifying the elevating profile of the pro-gram.
“I knew since it was the semis we’d have a big crowd,” Allen said. “We’ve really got to do a better job with our nerves. I thought we were a little nervous coming out.
“They’ve got to understand how hard it’s going to be to hear me (from the deck) in the finals,” Allen added.
A year ago, Arroyo Grande topped Rio Mesa 9-7 in the final, as Lippert made 15 saves. The Eagles claimed a rematch 5-4 on Jan. 9 at their own Winter Classic tournament, although both teams strategically held back imagining they might indeed see each other again in a more meaningful setting, Allen said. The Spartans have been ranked No. 2 in the division all year.
“It’s a huge advantage knowing which of their players to watch out for and how to guard particular ones,” Lippert said of the familiarity with Rio Mesa. “But we can’t get complacent knowing we beat them (a year ago).”