The Menlo School boys took a big step toward taking back the PAL Bay Division water polo title they lost to rival Menlo-Atherton last season by defeating the Bears, 11-8, on Wednesday in the Knights' pool.
Both teams came into the showdown undefeated in league, but the Knights left 3-0 (7-6 overall) and the Bears 2-1 (9-5). The winner of this matchup usually claims the league crown. Regular-season outcomes will decide the PAL champ.
Woodside is 4-0, but still has to play both M-A and Menlo.
"It's a bit odd to have such an important, impactful game at this point in the season," said Menlo head coach Jack Bowen. "We've essentially been preparing for this game for the past two weeks."
Both teams came out evenly matched, playing to a 2-2 tie after the first quarter. Menlo Atherton then capitalized on a few outstanding shots and pulled ahead, leading at one point in the third quarter, 6-3, on Alex Hakanson's fourth of his five goals. The Bears' lead was still three at 7-4 when Jack Beasley found the net with an assist from Hakanson.
With the game on the line, the tide turned in Menlo's favor as the Knights outscored the Bears, 7-1, the rest of the way as Menlo's defense blanked M-A in the final period and clamped down on Hakanson and Christian Huan on the wings after they combined for M-A's first five goals.
"We made a big change with that at half time on our split/drop defense," Bowen said. "We made that change at half, as well as tweaking our man-up and man-down situations."
Menlo senior co-captain James Thygesen tied the match at 8 with 4:29 left before freshman Sam Untrecht scored his third goal for a 9-8 lead with 2:16 to play. Menlo senior Chris Xi tallied his first goal for insurance at 10-8 with 1:44 remaining before Thygesen finished off a four-goal game with 37.1 seconds to play.
"All I could say to our boys after this game is how inspired I was by them," said Bowen. "They had the chance to give up. We were running our system exceptionally well early on and our shots just weren't going. Theirs were. We made some changes and then I stepped back to see what would happen. I could see them believing in our process, and in each other.
"It was truly inspiring to watch them play together and, instead of giving up when it got tough, they stepped up and supported each other and truly believed . . . That was one of the most inspiring games I've been a part of. I'm a really proud coach at this moment."
Menlo sophomore Miller Geschke was charged with defending the center position and yet, offensively, led the team with five assists. Senior goalkeeper Will Crouch finished the game with 11 saves, many coming at clutch times during Menlo's game-ending 8-2 run. Bowen said Crouch played his best game of the season.
Huhn added two goals for the Bears while sophomore goalie Noah Smith had a sensational block and was solid in his debut against the Knights.
Menlo School improved its overall record against Menlo-Atherton to 29-5 during Bowen's 16 years as head coach.
Menlo School faces off against East Bay power De La Salle on Friday (5:30 p.m.) during the Knights' annual homecoming game. Three weeks ago, Menlo topped De La Salle, 9-8.
While Bowen would like to start Brazilian transfer Tiago Bonchristiano in goal against De La Salle, Crouch may have earned another start with his standout effort against the Bears.
Bonchristiano, the starting goalie on the Brazilian junior national team, had to sit out the normal transfer time plus one match after playing in a season opener against St. Francis before he was eligible. Menlo had to forfeit that match and Bonchristiano had to miss the M-A showdown as a penalty.
In another PAL showdown, Castilleja remained perfect in the Bay Division following an 8-2 victory over the Menlo-Atherton girls at Menlo School on Wednesday.
When the teams met last season, Castilleja's victory then earned the Gators their first-ever PAL Bay Division title. On Wednesday, Castilleja merely moved closer to a second straight crown as it improved to 4-0 (8-4 overall).
Goalie Georgia Lewis came up big with 15 saves for the Gators while Claire Pisani tallied four goals to lead the offense. Celia Aldrete, Madison Lewis, Maddie Macdonald and Jenna Kotcher all added single tallies for coach Brenda Villa's squad as M-A fell to 2-2 in league (4-9 overall).
It was showdown time in the West Catholic Athletic League, as well, with the Sacred Heart Prep boys and girls both toppling rival St. Francis in Mountain View.
The SHP boys (3-0, 7-2) pulled away from a close match with four goals in the fourth period. Senior Finn Banks led the way with four goals while junior Jackson Enright and sophomore Alex Tzotadze each added two. Goalie J.C. Marco finished with nine saves.
Tzotadze gave the Gators a 5-4 lead with 4:07 left in the third period and SHP never trailed after that. The Lancers got to within 7-6 on a goal by Nathan Puentes in the fourth period, but Banks answered 14 seconds later for an 8-6 lead.
SHP had two more power-play goals than St. Francis and had a penalty shot.
Sacred Heart Prep will be in Irvine this weekend for the annual S & R Sport Tournament. The Gators open Friday against Long Beach Wilson at the William Woollett Aquatic Center. Other top teams entered include Harvard-Westlake, Foothill, Corona del Mar and Newport Harbor. The 16-team tournament featurs eight NorCal and eight SoCal squads.
In an earlier game Wednesday at St. Francis, the SHP girls (3-0, 10-3) maintained their hold on first place in the WCAL with a 9-6 triumph.
The Gators jumped out to a 3-0 first-quarter lead, led by 5-3 at the half and 7-5 after three periods. Maddy Johnston led SHP with three goals with fellow junior Layla Waters adding two. Sophomore Nadia Paquin, who transferred in from Menlo-Atherton, made her debut with SHP and tallied two goals.
-- Menlo Athletics contributed