MANHATTAN BEACH — Even as his team was beginning to create separation in the second half, Huntington Beach boys water polo coach Sasa Branisavljevic implored his players to “know where the best shooter is” in the pool for Mira Costa.
However, an eight-goal deficit entering the fourth quarter of the CIF Southern Section Division 1 playoff semifinal contest was too much for a late Mustangs rally to overcome Wednesday.
Mira Costa watched as Huntington Beach milked the clock late and lost 13-7, sending the Oilers to Saturday’s championship match at Mt. San Antonio College.
Huntington Beach is hoping a third time’s a charm, with Branisavljevic recalling CIF-SS championship losses in 2019 and 2016.
“I think we’re overdue,” he said.
The Mustangs (18-12), who trailed by as many as nine with 4 1/2 minutes left, reeled off four consecutive goals after both team’s starting goalkeepers were pulled to creep within 12-7 — including the last three from Maddox McEwen, who started his late charge by converting a penalty shot.
McEwen finished with a game-high five goals for Mira Costa, which was unable to avenge an 11-6 loss to Huntington Beach (20-10) in late September.
Aside from the playoff setting, Mustangs coach Jon Reichardt said nothing felt too different compared to the first meeting.
“We knew what they were going to do,” Reichardt said. “They did press us a little more than we thought they would, but it just wasn’t our night. Missed some shots we should’ve put in.”
Much like he started the match, Oilers attacker Christian Hammonds put the finishing touches on the victory with his team-high third goal inside the final minute.
“The luck was on our side, especially the early part of the game,” Branisavljevic said. “We hit our shots.”
In the final, Huntington Beach will face Laguna Beach, which narrowly defeated Santa Ana Foothill in the other semifinal 12-11. The Oilers won three of four meetings between the team this season, with the lone loss a 13-12 decision on Oct. 11.
Hammonds had two goals in the opening quarter, including a skip shot off the water with 0.39 seconds left to give Huntington Beach a 2-1 lead.
“It’s little things like that,” Reichart said. “You’ve got to keep pace and we didn’t do a good job of that.”
It was a standout quarter for both starting goalkeepers. The Oilers’ Jay Pyle made five of his 11 saves in the frame, while the Mustangs’ Hunter Gregory had four of his six stops.
“He’s one heckuva goalie. Jay is awesome,” Branisavljevic said.
Huntington Beach’s depth — three players are committed to Division I collegiate programs — was just too much in the middle two quarters. Four different players scored in the second to take a 6-2 lead into the break.
“Once you let the other team have the momentum and they can get rolling, then you lose yours and it’s taking one big step back,” McEwen said.
Mira Costa stopped a 6-0 run on McEwen’s third-quarter goal quickly off an Oilers’ exclusion foul to pull within 8-3.
Huntington Beach answered with three more goals, though, to extend the advantage to 11-3 through three quarters.
Reichardt said he was proud of the fight in a team that swept through the Bay League this season.
“Semifinals (appearance) in Division 1, that’s solid,” Reichardt said.
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