For a change, the Arroyo Grande High girls water polo team is considered the underdog.
Entering today’s CIF-Southern Section Division 3 title game, the Eagles will face defending champion Murrieta Valley. In their two previous meetings, the Nighthawks handed Arroyo Grande two lopsided losses.
So this is an unusual position for the Eagles, who are known as one of the top teams in the county, thanks to winning 90 consecutive PAC 7 games under the guidance of coach Steve Allen. They don’t feel discouraged, however.
“I think being the underdogs, you get more inspired and feel like you have a greater chance at winning,” said Arizona State-bound senior Katie Sverchek, who leads the Eagles with 113 goals, “because you want it more instead of knowing that you can beat them and knowing that you need to fight to win.”
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Today’s game — set for 6 p.m. at the William Woollett Jr. Aquatics Center in Irvine — is Arroyo Grande’s fifth final appearance in six years. The Eagles captured three Division 4 titles from 2008-10 before moving up to Division 3 last year.
Arroyo Grande’s first division title shot came in 2007, when the Eagles lost 13-10 to Cabrillo.
This time, they’re facing a Murrieta Valley team with a mental edge, considering the Nighthawks ran past them 11-4 in last year’s semifinals on their way to a third division title and 10-4 in a match at Arroyo Grande’s own tournament earlier this season. Both matches were learning experiences for the Eagles (27-5).
They know that their biggest problem will be Paige Virgil, the Murrieta Valley sophomore who recorded seven goals in the Nighthawks’ 15-7 handling of Whittier La Serna in the semifinals. She was also a force when her team faced Arroyo Grande this season.
“She’s one of the best players around,” Allen said. “We’re going to really key in on her and be ready to play.”
His Eagles are determined to keep Virgil under control.
“We’re going to make sure we have all of our bases covered,” said Arroyo Grande goalkeeper Kylie Anderson, who has made 269 saves. “If the ball gets to her, (we’re) making sure we talk and communicate and cover our own players so that she doesn’t dominate us.”
In the game film against Murrieta Valley, Allen recognized that his Eagles gave up too many perimeter steals, which led to quick counterattack scores.
“Our focus is to play good defense and understand their position and how we’re going to attack their team, especially defensively for us,” added Allen, whose Eagles have yet to beat Murrieta Valley despite playing at least once in each of the past four years. “I think defense is going to be a crucial part of our game. If we can keep the score under five, six, seven goals, I think we have a real good shot at it.”
As for the underdog status, the Eagles don’t mind it. They overcame a 4-0 deficit in the second period of Wednesday’s semifinal match against St. Lucy’s of Glendora to finish a thrilling 7-6 win.
“Going in, we know that we have a chance at this and we shouldn’t be nervous because we play this sport every day,” Anderson said.