After losses in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 2 girls water polo final the past two seasons, Oakdale High secured its first championship with a 5-3 victory over powerful Rio Americano (Sacramento) at the Roseville Aquatics Complex.
The Raiders won section titles from 2002 to 2010, and again last season, when they beat the Mustangs in the final.
“The only years they haven’t won the section title, we beat them,” said Oakdale coach Diane Kline, who has now guided the Mustangs to three title games in four seasons as head coach. “That says a lot about this program.”
It does indeed.
Only one team other than Rio Americano has reached three consecutive D2 finals (2011-13) , and only one team has ever defeated Rio Americano in the playoffs (2011, 2013).
That would be Oakdale High.
“The girls have worked so hard and done everything we’ve asked,” said a soaking wet Kline, who was thrown into the pool during the victory celebration. “They were so confident and they had the best attitudes they deserve it so much.”
Holding a 5-2 lead heading into the final 7 minutes of the season, Rio cut into the cushion when Celeste Brown put one past goalie Caitlin Golding with 3:42 remaining.
Over the next 90 seconds, the Raiders would twice go on power plays, but the Mustangs were able to hold them off each time. After that, Oakdale went into “stall-ball” mode.
“I was so scared that somebody was going to steal it from me,” said junior Shelby Stender, The Bee’s reigning District Player of the Year. “We were all kinda freaking out; I know I was kinda twitchy.”
If the Mustangs were freaking out, it wasn’t apparent. They played keep-away for the final 2 minutes and rode out the clock, and Rio’s defensive pressure, to the victory.
“It was handle-able,” said a jubilant Stender, who caught herself making up a new word. “Handle-able? It feels like my vocabulary just went out the window I promise I’m not stupid.”
After falling behind 1-0, Stender drew the Mustangs even with her only goal of the match. Oakdale then got a pair of second-quarter goals from Emily Bennett. Brown countered with her first of the contest and the Mustangs led 3-2 at halftime. The other Oakdale goals came from Aleksaandra Courtney and Emily Stolken as the Mustangs stretched the lead to 5-2 – their biggest of the match – after three quarters.
Golding came throw with several big blocks in key situations, stopping Rio from scoring when they had wide-open looks.
“She’s huge,” Kline said of her sophomore goalie. “Hayley Benson was our goalie last year and Caitlin had such big shoes to fill. But she’s worked so hard on her own; she’s gone to camps on her own; she wants to be the best she can possibly be. Games like this are a testament to how hard she’s worked.”
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Stender held the ball waiting for a Rio defender to attack. None did, perhaps realizing it was a futile effort. As the horn sounded, Stender released her grip on the ball and let it float away in the pool.
“I didn’t know what to do,” said Stender. “I just dropped the ball and sprinted over to the wall.
“It didn’t feel real.”