IRVINE—The challenge lived up to its billing and then some.
The Arroyo Grande High girls water polo team was unable to overcome the overpowering offense of top-seeded Murrieta Valley as the No. 3 Eagles ended their season with a 12-3 loss to the defending champion Nighthawks in Saturday’s CIF Southern Section Division 3 final at William Woollett Aquatics Center.
The defeat marks the second year in a row that Arroyo Grande ended its season with a loss to Murrieta Valley and denied the Eagles (27-6) in their bid for a fourth title in five years.
“We knew they were really good,” said Arroyo Grande coach Steven Allen, whose team lost to the Nighthawks in the semifinals last year. “But it was tougher than we thought. They stopped everything we threw at ’em.
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“They have some great shooters from the perimeter, and we tried to shut them down. We tried to pick our poison, but they can beat you in so many ways.”
Murrieta Valley sophomore attacker Maddie Sanchez did the most damage, scoring a game-high five goals.
Sanchez gave the Nighthawks (25-6) the initial lead during a six-on-five advantage with 3:41 left in the first quarter. Arroyo Grande’s Katie Sverchek evened the score less than a minute later, but Murrieta Valley quickly stole the momentum.
Paige Virgil’s back-handed shot while fending off two defenders with 1:29 left in the first quarter put the Nighthawks ahead for good. Murrieta Valley would go on to score nine consecutive goals before the Eagles notched their next score late in the third quarter.
“They took advantage of a couple of our errors and took control of the momentum,” Allen said. “I thought we played a lot better in the second half, but it was too late.”
The Nighthawks pulled away during a dominant second quarter in which they outscored Arroyo Grande 5-0 using several long-distance shots. A shot the length of the pool by Virgil at the buzzer gave Murrieta Valley an 8-1 halftime lead.
“Their outside shots were dead on,” said Eagles senior attacker Madison Ochotorena. “They have so many good players you can’t just focus on one or two. They’re a really good team.”
The gap grew to 10-1 midway through the third quarter on Sanchez’s fifth goal.
Arroyo Grande had a chance to end its scoring drought seconds later, but Alexis Elias’ 5-meter penalty shot was blocked by Nighthawks goalkeeper Abby Goviea.
Arroyo Grande’s Katie Romine succeeded in getting a shot past Goviea when her shot from seven meters out hit the post and ricocheted into the cage with 1:57 left in the third quarter.
Hannah Kope scored the Eagles’ final goal on a lob shot that made the score 11-3 in the middle of the fourth quarter.
Arroyo Grande goalkeeper Kylie Anderson made 13 saves in a busy night in which she’d faced 18 shots by halftime.
“I thought she had a really good game,” Allen said.
Despite the loss, the Eagles remained upbeat and full of smiles as they reflected on a season in which they won a league title and reached the division final for the first time since moving up to Division 3 last season.
“We’re just happy to get this far,” Allen said. “When we lost Kim Johnson at the beginning of the season we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. These girls have overcome a lot and never give up. I’m proud of that .... Even tonight, I liked that when the going got tough, we never backed down.”
His players echoed the sentiment.
“We came in knowing they were a good team,” Sverchek said. “We gave it our all. We tried our best and never gave up, so we have to be proud of ourselves. They were just too much to overcome.”
“It’s sad to lose,” she said. “But I’m really proud of my team. We got this far, and we didn’t give up.”