By going unbeaten in league play, the UC Davis men had already made it evident that the Western Water Polo Association tournament title would be theirs to lose.
Hence, No. 4 Loyola Marymount had an uphill battle against the top-seeded Aggies in Saturday’s first semifinal. And atop that acclivity, UCD found a 9-7 win at Schaal Aquatics Center.
With the victory, the Aggies (now 10-0 in games against WWPA opponents and 14-12 overall) earned a place in the championship contest, where they will match up against second-seeded UC San Diego on Sunday (2 p.m.) at Schaal.
The first to put UCD on the board Saturday was its bona fide standout, senior Bernie Rogers. The league-proclaimed Player of the Year left LMU trailing, a position the Aggies never found themselves in on Saturday.
Closing the gap when opposed by local goalkeeper Philip Bates was no uncomplicated task for the Lions. Bates averaged three saves per quarter, with five of his 12 overall stops coming from 6-on-5 situations.
“We had some great goalie play (on Saturday),” said UCD first-year coach Daniel Leyson. “That enabled us to make some important stops down the stretch. That was big for us.”
Leyson also praised the contributions on offense that came from skilled Aggies who are often overlooked; such as Tyler Elliott, a senior who bolstered UCD’s lead in the first quarter, which ended with the locals up 2-1.
The second period also saw two young Aggies tallying goals: sophomore Austin Beckwith and freshman Max Vigeant. The LMU offense encroached on UCD’s net as well in this quarter, tying the game at 2-2 and 3-3, but Vigeant’s goal within the final minute meant the visitors faced a 4-3 deficit at halftime.
After the break, the recuperated squads returned to the pool much less benign. The Lions (four) and the Aggies (three) went on to each surrender more goals in the third quarter than they did in any of the others.
All of the LMU goals in the first three periods were 5-meter penalty shots or 6-on-5 situations. Two of the Lions’ goals were delivered by sophomore Milutin Mitrovic, who boasted a hat trick by the end of the contest.
The Aggie action in this portion of the match began with Elliott throwing a skip shot that cut through LMU’s defense. Capitalizing on 6-on-5 scenarios, Rodgers and junior Chris Richardson each added a goal themselves.
Rodgers, with less than 30 seconds on the clock in the third quarter, flung a swiftly flying ball into the Lion net to hit his hat trick and cement his team’s 8-6 advantage going into the final period.
After a few initial moments of inaction in the fourth quarter, Mitrovic landed LMU’s first full-strength goal to lift his team to a more hopeful 8-7 with three minutes remaining.
But it wasn’t the Lions making the last-minute goals, it was the Aggies. Junior Teddy Nicholson, after just making a timely steal, emerged from a torrent of two aggressive Lion guards to find the net at the 30-second mark. The Davis High graduate’s goal made it 9-7, and was the final tally of the contest.
A victory in the Sunday’s finals would earn UCD an automatic berth into the NCAA championship tournament, which will be hosted by Stanford University on Dec. 7-8. The locals last played on this stage 16 years ago.
The aforementioned No. 2 UCSD bested No. 3 Santa Clara, 8-4, in Saturday’s second semifinal. The Aggies will combat the Triton in a matchup that has history in the league tournament.
In 2012, the then top-seeded UCSD knocked UCD in the semis, with a tight 11-9 decision. The year prior, the Tritons prevailed, 8-7, in a title match against the Aggies.
It’s worth noting, however, that the locals upset their impending opponent, 12-11, earlier this month.
Leyson is optimistic about his squad’s ability to claim the WWPA title, yet Saturday’s game for him exposed some adjustment that’s needed before the match.
“We just gotta keep getting better,” Leyson said. “Our execution on 6-on-5′s wasn’t even close to the level it needs to be to win the championship. We definitely have to improve in that respect.”
— Reach Brett Johnson at email@example.com or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett.