IRVINE — Melanie Johnson couldn’t recall a situation in which she’d felt so much pressure. The situation she enjoyed seconds later was plenty familiar.
Johnson’s goal with 42 seconds to play clinched Arroyo Grande High’s third consecutive CIF-Southern Section Division 4 girls water polo championship as the top-seeded Eagles defeated No. 2 Rio Mesa 7-6 on Saturday at William Woollett Aquatic Center.
“I was thinking, ‘sink it, put it away,’ ” Johnson recalled of what was going through her mind when she got the ball coming out of a timeout. “I was really, really nervous. Then the goalie had slid over to the side I usually go to, so then it was the other side.”
Johnson’s shot slipped in just under the crossbar to break a 6-6 tie Rio Mesa had forged two minutes earlier.
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“We’ve run that play with other players,” Arroyo Grande coach Steve Allen said. “I looked at her and said, ‘It’s your turn.’ She came through.”
Kim Johnson helped preserve the lead when she stripped the ball away from Courtney Walters before the Spartans’ star could get off a shot at the post. Arroyo Grande maintained possession the rest of the way as it ran the clock out.
Chilly weather and rain couldn’t dampen the celebration that followed. Anyone affiliated with the team on the pool deck ended up in the pool in what is becoming an annual tradition for the Eagles.
“It’s fantastic,” said senior goalkeeper Briana Lippert, who contributed 11 saves. “This topped last year’s victory by far.”
Arroyo Grande (30-3) defeated Rio Mesa in last year’s final but did so by a two-goal margin.
The Pacific View League champion Spartans (26-7) made it clear early that a repeat wouldn’t be easy.
After Stephanie Stern scored the first of her team-high three goals to give Arroyo Grande the initial lead, Rio Mesa scored three in a row and led 3-2 after the first quarter.
The Eagles didn’t regain the lead until early in the third quarter when Stern skipped a shot into the right side of the net for a 5-4 lead. Six seconds later, Walters restored the tie for Rio Mesa.
Walters, who led the Spartans with three goals, evened the score again in the fourth quarter on a penalty shot with 2:49 remaining.“We’re used to playing close games like that,” Lippert said. “We knew if we stayed calm we’d be OK.”
Melanie Johnson’s winning shot was her second goal of the afternoon. Kim Johnson and Alexa May also contributed a goal each.“We knew it was going to be a barn burner,” Allen said. “My hats off to Rio Mesa. They played a great game. They gave us fits on defense. We kept grinding and grinding. We knew eventually it would come.”
The Eagles were playing in the title game for the fourth consecutive year, but they say it never gets old, and championships now mean more because they are the team opponents are aiming to stop.
“It’s an amazing statement as far as coach Allen and all he teaches us, and all the players and how hard we’ve worked,” Melanie Johnson said.
“It’s always a big achievement to get a CIF championship. I have great teammates. I couldn’t be more honored to be a part of this team.”