Boys Water Polo:Knights near CCS berth

By Nathan Mollat Daily Journal Staff Oct. 19

It’s not often a match for fourth place generates much excitement, but not all fourth-place games are equal.

The Peninsula Athletic League receives four bids to the Central Coast Section tournaments. The top three teams in the Bay Division standings — which in this case are Menlo School, Menlo-Atherton and Burlingame — snatched three of those playoff spots.

But instead of simply giving the Bay Division’s fourth-place team the final berth, that fourth-place squad must play the Ocean Division champion in a CCS play-in game during the PAL tournament next week.

So there was plenty riding on the Hillsdale-Woodside match in Redwood City Wednesday. Both squads came into the match with 2-3 record, with the winner securing fourth place and a play-in match against Ocean champ Sequoia.

Hillsdale, which won only one game in the Bay Division in 2016, was looking to this season to qualify for CCS for the first time since 2014.

And after an 11-7 win over Woodside in the regular-season finale, the Knights will get a chance to do just that.

“There was a lot at stake,” said Hillsdale coach Ren Hodzic. “I knew it would be a battle to the end. We went to OT with [Woodside] last year.”

Noah Christner scored a game-high four goals for Hillsdale in a match that had more excitement and up-and-down play than a roller coaster.

The Knights scored on their final five shots of the first period to hold a 5-3 lead and led 7-4 at halftime.

Woodside scored three unanswered goals to open the third quarter, tying the game at 7, but the Knights closed with a flourish. They scored twice in the final minute of the third to take a 9-7 lead into the fourth and then shut out the Wildcats in the fourth to take the victory.

“We’ve been waiting for this one for a while,” said Hillsdale’s Brody Eveslage, a four-year varsity player. “This was a big one.”

Eveslage, who finished with two goals and two assists, had to play carefully for the final 12 minutes or so after he picked up his second ejection midway through the third period. A third ejection would have ended Eveslage’s day, but he remained composed and kept himself in the match.

“It happens,” Hodzic said. “But I’m not subbing out my senior captain. He’s an extremely smart player.”

Eveslage admitted he was a little nervous playing with the two major fouls, but he was confident his teammates would pick him up.

“That was scary,” Eveslage said. “I had to alter my defense. I had to play it careful. [Christner and Grant Ronberg] picked up the defense (for me).”

For Woodside, it was the second straight season it found itself needing a win on the final day of the regular season to get into that play-in game.

And it looked like Wednesday might be the Wildcats’ day. Cameron Vaughan’s shot from mid-pool with under five seconds left in the first period gave Woodside some momentum.

Despite trailing by three at halftime, 7-4, it was the Wildcats who came out on fire in the third, as they scored three straight goals to tie the match at 7 with 4:44 to play in the period. Levi Vigdorchik pulled Woodside to 7-5 on a goal less than 30 seconds into the third quarter. That was quickly followed by a strike from Duncan Vaughan, off an assist from Cameron Vaughan. When Vigdorchik converted a power-play goal off a feed from Cameron Vaughan, all the momentum was on the Wildcats’ sideline.

“I did get concerned when you lose a three-goal lead that quickly,” Hodzic said.

Hillsdale then dodged a bullet when, 30 seconds after the man-advantage goal for the Wildcats, Woodside got another power play opportunity, but Giorgio Fatica’s shot from the hole set clanged off the post.

Woodside had two more opportunities to take the lead in the third, but Duncan Vaughan’s shot on the Wildcats’ third man-advantage of the period was blocked by a Hillsdale defender and Fatica’s shot from the set position 40 seconds later went wide.

After weathering that storm, Hillsdale delivered the gut punch — a pair of goals in the final minute of the quarter. Eveslage gave the Knights the lead for good with 49 seconds left in the third, when he took a cross-pool pass from Nate Clark, that he buried with a one-timer from the left post.

Moments later, Noah Christner beat two Woodside players to a loose ball at mid-pool and broke in on goal. Christner was denied on the shot, but the Woodside goaltender turned the ball over to Christner as he started swimming away. He quickly went back on the attack and calmly put his shot away to give Hillsdale a 9-7 lead going into the final period. Goals from Clark, off an assist from Eveslage, and Christner, on a five-meter penalty shot, accounted for the final margin of victory.

Woodside was led by Cameron Vaughan’s three goals, while Vigdorchik added two for the Wildcats. Fatica and Duncan Vaughan rounded out the scoring for Woodside.

In addition to Christner’s four and Eveslage’s two goals, Hillsdale got two goals from Grant Averill and one goal each from Ronberg, Connor Nordell and Clark.

While there was a bit of celebrating on the part of the Knights, they realize their job is not done. Still waiting is a match next week against Sequoia — the team Hillsdale beat in a play-in game in 2014.

“We know (we have one more game to qualify for CCS),” Hodzic said. “But you got to get into [that play-in game] first.”

Added Eveslage: “We still have one more, but I think we’ll be ready.”

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