Sports often serves as a unifying distraction from tragedy, a characteristic that was exemplified Saturday in a highly engaging Golden Coast Conference semifinal match between No. 3 seeded Long Beach State and No. 2 seeded Pepperdine, a campus still shrouded in smoke from the Woolsey Fire. Long Beach won the contest 5-4 in front of a loud and energetic crowd at Ken Lindgren Aquatics Center.
“They’ve been through a lot this week and I think it’s hard for anybody to try to play water polo or any sport with that stuff going on,” head Coach Gavin Arroyo said.
Both goalies made several great saves throughout the first quarter, which ended in a scoreless tie.
“We had a lot of really good preparation especially on the defense and I think the fact that it was a low scoring game shows that,” sophomore goalie Marwan Darwish said.
As the noise from both benches increased in a tie game, senior defender Keegan Wicken found himself in the high-center and thought about a long range shot. He pump faked, then fired under the right arm of the keeper to give the 49ers a 2-1 lead 2 minutes from halftime.
“I think they were phenomenal, they were really engaged and in a good place,” Arroyo said. “They did everything they could and they willed it to happen today.”
Great goaltending on both sides continued throughout the game as neither team was able to block or prevent shots consistently, but Darwish and Pepperdine keeper John Claude Marco limited the score to 2-1 at the half.
“We did what we needed to do, we communicated with each other; everybody was in their zone,” Darwish said.
The third quarter reversed that trend and brought three consecutive scoring possessions. Pepperdine scored on the third of these to bring the game to a 3-3 tie.
“I think that was just all nerves on both sides,” Arroyo said.
Although Long Beach was able to prevent Pepperdine from taking the lead, the consistent ability of the blue and orange to hang around slowly shifted momentum in its favor. Entering the fourth quarter tied became a dangerous prospect for Long Beach.
With just 30 seconds left in the third, the 49ers worked down low and crossed the ball to the middle. A quick one-timer from freshman center Theodoros Pateros gave the 49ers a crucial 5-4 lead after three quarters.
“I think we just had to get into the game, make our mistakes and then move past that,” Arroyo said.
Darwish was instrumental in keeping the game at 5-4 throughout the entirety of the fourth quarter. With three minutes left to play he made a sensational cross-body right arm save on a changeup.
“He was on fire,” Arroyo said.
Long Beach went into chew-clock mode after that save, but a turnover and an exclusion gave Pepperdine a powerplay with 30 seconds left. With two seconds remaining, the 49ers were finally able to block a shot, sealing the upset victory.
“I thought ‘there is no way this ball is going in’ and I’m sure my teammates felt the same way,” Darwish said. “It was very intense with very high emotions at that moment and I think we did a good job stopping it.”
Long Beach will play in the 1 p.m. conference championship match Sunday against No. 1 seeded Pacific at Ken Lindgren Aquatics Center. The winner receives an automatic bid to the NCAA Men’s Water Polo Championship Tournament.