The Bulldogs' Stephen Parker looks to make a play in last Saturday's CCS playoff match against Christopher. Photo by Robert Eliason.

“Incredibly shocked.” That’s how Noah Lee described the state of the Sobrato boys water polo team’s predicament at halftime of last Saturday’s Central Coast Section Division II playoff quarterfinal match against Christopher at Santa Teresa High in San Jose. Given that the Bulldogs had already beaten the Cougars by scores of 17-8 and 19-12 earlier this season, they were stunned to be trailing by one goal at the half. However, No. 3 seed Sobrato (19-7) showed its mettle in rallying for a gritty 12-10 win.

“I did not think it (us trailing by two at the half) was going to be the outcome of the game,” said Lee, the junior hole-set who scored a team-high five goals. “Thankfully, we came back. We would’ve never lived it down if we didn’t come back.”

Sobrato advances to a semifinal match against No. 2 Carmel (15-10) on Wednesday at Gunn High in Palo Alto at 7 p.m. Lee was on his game, scoring the first two goals of the match within the first minute to give the Bulldogs a quick 2-0 lead. The first was a Lee specialty—a backhand blind shot from five meters in—and the second came on a 6-on-5 advantage that saw Stephen Parker get the assist. Sobrato led 3-2 after the first quarter before Christopher scored the first three goals of the second period en route to taking a 6-5 halftime lead. 

The Bulldogs received a critical goal from Parker with under a minute left in the second period to narrow the deficit. Parker pounced on a ball in front of the Christopher goal before connecting on the shot on the 6-on-5 advantage. The Bulldogs were an outstanding 4-of-7 with the man advantage, and that proved to be the difference as the Cougars were just 1-of-5 on the 6-on-5 advantage. 

Sobrato took control in the decisive third period, outscoring Christopher 3-0 to take a lead they would never relinquish. Nicholas Jensen, Sy Lazzaroni and Lee accounted for the third-period goals. Christopher kept things close throughout the fourth quarter, never trailing by more than two goals until the final two minutes, when Jensen scored on a float shot from eight meters away to absolutely break the backs of the Cougars. 

Superior conditioning proved to be the difference in the second half, as Sobrato seemingly had more energy in overtaking Christopher. 

“We noticed that they got a little tired in the third quarter,” Lee said. “That has been the outcome whenever we’ve played them this season, and we use our conditioning to pull away. Our coach (Ronni Gautschi) prides us on our conditioning. When we don’t want to or when we just don’t care, it’s conditioning all the time. And it’s ultimately what makes us better.”

Cougars coach Paul Wells attributed the team’s loss to mistakes from the players and himself in combination with the fatigue factor. 

“I usually rotate in some different players in the third quarter to relieve some of the starters so I have them for the fourth quarter, and I didn’t do it this time,” Well said. “And in that respect, it’s my bad. There was no gas left in the fourth quarter. In the first half we were quite loose and ready to play, and in the second half, we tightened up a little bit.”

Incredibly, the two best players in the pool—Jacob Hatch from Sobrato and Chris Critzer of Christopher—finished with just three goals between them, all from Critzer. In the teams’ last match on Oct. 12—a 19-12 Sobrato victory—Hatch scored eight goals on 12 shots and Critzer had six goals. However, the Cougars’ game plan was to take away Hatch and make other players beat them, and Lee was more than happy to oblige. Locked in a physical battle with friend and Christopher hole-set Decklin Byrd, Lee still produced five goals, with three of them coming off the blind backhand shot.  

“It’s a very good shot of mine, a powerful shot,” Lee said. “I’ve been playing water polo for about eight years under Ronni and her older brother Ryan, and they’ve taught me everything I know. So I learn from them and work hard and do whatever it takes to be a better player. It takes a lot of practice. … Ronni and Ryan are like family to me, especially Ronni. She is one of my best friends, an aunt, mother, sister, in that I have a very close relationship with her and I can talk to her about anything, and I have.”

Jensen finished with three goals and Parker two for Sobrato, which showed its balance and versatility by beating a solid team without a single goal from the standout Hatch. Lee said he’s used to seeing teams try to take away Hatch, and it’s up to everyone else to recognize that and play their game. 

“If you’re on offense you just have to focus on doing your job and helping the team,” Lee said. “However many defenders are on you, either you get the ball and score or you drag defenders with you and help somebody else to score. It’s trying to create good tactics and using your skill to distract the other team as well.”

Bulldogs goalie Cameron Storlie did his usual fine job in front of the cage, making some incredible saves, none more spectacular than a point-blank save late in the first quarter with Christopher on a 6-on-5 advantage. Lazzaroni scored from long distance—about eight meters away—delivering a well-placed shot just under the top cross bar to give Sobrato a 7-6 lead it would never relinquish. 

Shane Sawyer’s goal also was one that doesn’t happen too often, as he was situated on the left point near the out-of-bounds markers. Nonetheless, he placed a perfect shot that got past the Christopher goalie for a 10-8 lead with 3:17 remaining. Lee gave the Bulldogs their largest lead of the game at 12-9, scoring on a blind backhand shot with 2:01 left. 

At that point, Sobrato could simply play keep away on its remaining possessions to ice the game. Lee gave credit to Christopher for playing at a higher level than in the previous two contests. 

“They played a very good game,” he said. “(in the first two games earlier in the season) there was a point they kind of realized they might not have a chance to win it, but today they pulled through and did a very good job. We ultimately won, but it was a great game for them as well.” 

A lot of the players on both teams know each other since they played together on the Manta club team with the 16- and 18-and-under squads that advanced to the Junior Olympic Tournament in the summer. Lee and Byrd happen to be friends, so their battle at the hole-set position was a competitive one. Even though Sobrato lost to Carmel 17-5 on Oct. 25, Lee feels the rematch will be a bit different. 

“With another couple of practices, more motivation and more energy to do well, we’ll try to come out with the win,” he said.

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