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Sierra Pacific settles for second

KINGSBURG — Like all season long, Sierra Pacific battled. And like all season long, they never gave up. Every single player gave 100 percent and then some on Thursday, but unlike all season long, the Golden Bears’ girls water polo end result was heartbreak.

Sierra Pacific fell 12-10 in the CIF Central Section Division III championship game to Kingsburg and had their championship aspirations dashed.

“They don’t ever give up. They work hard every single day out at the pool,” Sierra Pacific coach Jessica Bean said. “They just never quit, they never gave up, they wanted it bad. That’s just their mentality. Today, we just happened to be on the losing side, but it’s extra fuel for our fire next year.”

The loss, the first since Oct. 20, snapped the six-game winning streak and ended the season. It was also the second time in three years Sierra Pacific (21-8, 8-1 ESL) has lost in the title game. They lost to Selma 10-5 in 2015.

Making it all more painful, Sierra Pacific came close. They were knocking on the door of their first-ever Central Section title.

Trailing 8-7 entering the fourth quarter, momentum seemed to be on their side. They trailed 4-1 in the first and 7-4 in the third only to battle back to within one score each time.

“I felt like we had the momentum in our corner at halftime,” Bean said. “I told them they had to keep driving and keep drawing ejections … but they were definitely making waves. I told them just keep grinding, keep grinding, keep grinding and don’t give up. I felt good going into the fourth quarter.”

Kingsburg (20-4, 8-0 CSL) started the fourth quarter by taking advantage of a 6-on-5 opportunity and scored to make it a two-goal cushion. They added another goal just over 30 seconds later and increased the margin to three. For the third time in the game, the Vikings had a three-goal lead and they looked ready to put the game away.

But just like the previous times before, Sierra Pacific fought back.

Victoria Blanchard scored her first of two goals on a 6-on-5 opportunity when Kingsburg’s goalkeeper was excluded. Blanchard, the team’s second-leading scorer, was kept in check all night long by Kingsburg’s smothering defense and wasn’t allowed many scoring chances.

Kingsburg scored two more times to give themselves their biggest lead of the night and led 12-8 with 4:23 left in the game. Again, Sierra Pacific would not quit.

Blanchard struck again followed by Hailey McGaha’s goal to cut it to 12-10 with 2:48 remaining. After stops from both teams, McGaha, who had a team-high four goals, drew the major foul and earned herself a penalty shot.

With 54 seconds to go, Sierra Pacific needed the goal to stay alive. McGaha’s shot was smothered by Kingsburg goalkeeper Brighton Kenny and sealed the game. The Vikings ran out the clock and Sierra Pacific had come so close once again.

In all, six different players scored for Sierra Pacific. McGaha and Blanchard combined for six goals, while Isabella Tomas, Rylee Lord, Brianna Leeper and Vanessa Lloyd each scored a goal.

No doubt the toughest loss of the year, but if there was one common theme after the game, it was looking forward to next year.

“It was frustrating afterwards, but there’s always next year,” McGaha said. “There’s always another chance and I think we’re going to get it next year. We have the potential for it.”

Bean huddled her girls after the match and told them how proud she was of them and that their performance was nothing to be ashamed about.

“I’m excited for next year because I’m not losing anybody,” Bean said. “I want to already get them back in the water and get them going so that we can fix the things we made wrong, but I think that they’ll appreciate a little bit of off time and let themselves reset.”

After the game, Sierra Pacific received a game ball from Kingsburg. Bean already knows exactly what she’s going to do with it.

“I told the girls we’ll write the Valley championship score on it and we’ll play with that every single day at practice and that’ll be your motivator,” Bean said. “We’ll put that ball wherever they need it so they can see it.”

Sierra Pacific got off to a sluggish start as it looked like nerves were taking over at first. They trailed 4-1 after the first quarter before getting refocused in the second.

“It certainly wasn’t the team I had seen play all season long,” Bean said about the first quarter. “We just came out too flat in the first quarter, made too many mistakes — mental mistakes — and it was hard to overcome that.”

Freshman Lord scored in the second to cut the deficit to one before Kingsburg restored its lead. Tomas scored on a 6-on-5 when she found herself 1-on-1 with the goalkeeper and the Golden Bears trailed 5-3 at halftime.

In the third, neither team scored for almost two and a half minutes before McGaha brought them to within one. But Kingsburg had an answer every time Sierra Pacific got close. They scored on an easy touch-goal when Sierra Pacific missed an assignment at the front of the net.

A missed penalty shot by the Golden Bears didn’t help and Kingsburg scored again right after and led 7-4. But Sierra Pacific scored three of the last four goals in the quarter to make it 8-7 headed into the fourth.

The team will have 11 returning girls, immediately making them a contender for next year’s championship game as well. Six of the girls will be seniors so even more will be on the line for the girls.

“Hopefully we get to play Kingsburg again,” McGaha, a junior, said.