Laguna Beach's two-year reign as a CIF Southern Section champion in boys' water polo came to an end Wednesday in Irvine.
Laguna, which won the last two Division 3 titles, came up just short of contending for a Division 2 crown in its first year in the division. The No. 3-seeded Breakers reached the semifinal round in the division, but had their title streak stopped by No. 2 Santa Barbara, which scored a 9-7 victory at the William Woollett Jr. Aquatics Center.
Laguna, reigning champion of the Orange Coast League, ended its year at 21-10. Santa Barbara (22-8), which won the Channel League title, moves on to play in the Division 2 title game at Saturday at 2:45 p.m.
"I was really proud of our guys, and what they did this year," Laguna Coach Ethan Damato said. "We didn't play well tonight but we were 9-7 against a good Santa Barbara team. Our guys didn't give up until the final whistle."
Laguna led just twice in the semifinal. The Breakers took a 1-0 lead 34 seconds into the game on a skip shot into the right side of the cage by Riley Thomas. Their final lead came less than a minute later, when Caleb Scott scored from close range to make it 2-1.
Santa Barbara scored the next three goals and took the lead for good, 3-2, on a goal by Nathaniel Hunter with the Dons holding a six-on-five advantage.
Laguna drew to within 4-3 at the end of the first quarter when Jack Dodson drilled a shot into the left corner of the cage just before the buzzer. The Breakers managed only a goal by Duncan Lynde, off an assist from Trevor Collins, in the second quarter, where Santa Barbara was able to extend its lead to 7-4 at the break.
Laguna, which was just two of eight in power-play situations, outscored the Dons, 3-2, in the second half. The Breakers had chances to narrow the gap early in the half but missed their first four shots of the third quarter. They finally broke through when a steal by Camron Hauer led to another goal by Dodson to bring the score to 7-5 with 2:48 left in the quarter.
The Breakers drew to within 8-6 with 5:30 left on a goal by Scott, but with two Laguna players drawing exclusions during the same sequence, Santa Barbara was able to move back into a three-goal cushion when Skylar Matthews scored on a power play with 3:28 to play.
Thomas, Laguna's leading scorer this season, netted his second goal of the game with 2:14 left to make it 9-7.
"We had our chances to get the game to within one goal, but in six-on-five situations, we weren't sharp tonight," Damato said. "I thought we did a nice job of controlling the tempo in the second half. We had a lot of chances."
Wednesday marked the second time this season that Santa Barbara had taken a two-goal victory from Laguna. The Dons won the first meeting, 10-8, at the Tournament of Champions in Santa Barbara in September.
"It was a big challenge," Damato said of the move from Division 3, to Division 2. "I'm proud of what our guys seniors did, as a group, and how our younger players stepped up. We're all disappointed with the loss, but I'm proud of our guys."
The Laguna Beach boys' and girls' teams emerged with top-five finishes in the Division 4 preliminaries on Nov. 10 and each earned a spot in the CIF Southern Section Championships on Saturday at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut.
The boys' Division 4 championship races starts at 9:45 a.m. The girls' title race starts at 10:45 a.m.
The Laguna boys are one of 16 teams to advance to the finals from prelims. The Breakers finished third, behind Fillmore and Don Bosco, in their heat, and placed fifth, overall, in the team standings. Eight teams from each of the two heats advance to Saturday's final.
Times turned in at prelims by the Laguna boys' teams: sophomore Grant Barton (16:17); junior Casey Koprowski (16:28); junior Veda Rebollar (16:51); senior Mitch Kimball (16:53); sophomore Cameron Zuziak (17:02); freshman Penn Neilson (17:37); Freshman Ian Ring (17:56).
Laguna boys' coach Scott Wittkop said he "rested" a few of the key Breakers who didn't compete at prelims.