Always being favored to win carries a different feeling than merely hoping to on occasion.
So, while the Nipomo High boys water polo team seemed basically pleased Wednesday afternoon after beating Santa Ynez 10-7, there wasn’t any raucous celebration by the Titans. They have bigger goals in mind.
In finishing the regular season unbeaten in the Los Padres League, Nipomo (17-4, 4-0), the top-ranked team in the CIF-Southern Section Division 7 coaches poll, avenged a 12-10 loss to the Pirates almost a year ago to the day. Santa Ynez (19-5, 3-1) came in ranked No. 5 in the division.
“We needed to win this,” Nipomo goalkeeper Kirk Wilenius said. “There was no question we needed to win this. It was just a long time coming.”
The win, which came in front of a deck packed by family members and students announced to be a program-record crowd, was the latest step in what has already been an historic season. Their run so far has also featured a few nonleague wins over PAC 7 opponents, including one over Arroyo Grande, Division 4’s eighth-ranked team.
Nipomo got out to a 6-1 first-half lead Wednesday before Santa Ynez came back with three straight goals over the next 3 1⁄2 minutes of the second period. It stayed fairly tight the rest of the way, but the Pirates didn’t pull any closer than two scores, and neither team scored in the final quarter.
For Nipomo, the late shutout came toward the end of a start-to-finish banner day by Wilenius.
“Kirk has definitely been one of the major staples to our defense,” coach Justin Jewell said. “I think he puts a lot of intimidation into other offenses.”
The 6-foot-6 senior, who’s also a post player in basketball, blocked a career-high 20 shots.
“When my defense is on, it really helps me get more saves,” Wilenius said, “and they had a lot of shots to the cage, and my defense did what they needed to do to make it a lot easier for me.”
Offensively, the Titans got a well-timed boost from Derek Seaman to start the second half.
Complementing a cast of power shooters including baseball pitchers Marc Baker and Cole Holloway, Seaman tallied three goals in a row over a three-minute span.
“Derek did a great job of finding the seams,” Jewell said. “He was swimming really well. (If a defense is) giving him any kind of gap or any kind of seam, he’s definitely going to take advantage of it.”
Seaman’s hat trick pushed the score to 9-5 with 3:28 remaining in the third quarter.
“It’s a big win, but I feel like everybody knows that we could’ve improved (upon the game),” Seaman said. “We could’ve played better. So it feels good to know that we were still able to come out with a win, but we just know we have a lot to work on.”
Baker, who unleashed a first-period buzzer-beater that established a 3-0 lead, also finished with three goals. Holloway and J.W. Dobbe added two apiece.
A year ago, the Titans entered the playoffs as the LPL’s second-place entry before advancing to the divisional semifinals, where they fell to Nogales of La Puente, 7-3. Nogales, which went on to top Santa Ynez 15-8 in the championship, was ranked No. 4 this week.
“We’re really proud of it,” Seaman said of the ranking, “but we figure we still have to keep working hard. We may be No. 1, but Santa Ynez was No. 1 last year and they lost to Nogales in the finals, so you can never be happy with where you’re at. You’ve got to keep working harder.”
The Titans first moved up to the No. 1 spot in the rankings Sept. 26.
“Every team that we play is going to play their very best game against us,” Jewell said. “We’re aware of that. We don’t look at it as a big target, we look at it as a wonderful responsibility that we’re willing to accept and take the role of and the challenge of.
“The guys have worked hard for this status,” he said.
The LPL prelims will start Tuesday, with the tournament finals to be held Nov. 3.
“Every team has brought their best game for us (because of the ranking),” Wilenius said. “It’s a lot of fun, but it’s just something to keep us even more focused. We can’t take any games lightly from here on out.”