As Long Beach junior attacker Austin Stewart finished his follow through on a spin-shot goal midway through the fourth quarter of the conference final against Pacific he and the student section fist-pumped in unison, celebrating the 8-6 lead. Long Beach went on to win the conference title 10-6.
“I drove across and I saw he was just kinda sleeping so I slipped inside and it was on my back and I thought ‘there’s no damn way i’m gonna fucking miss this,” Stewart said.
“They really played with composure. We’ve been talking a lot about not having to be perfect; it’s the first finals for a lot of these guys and we just tried to stay calm and composed throughout the process,” head coach Gavin Arroyo said.
The first quarter saw a flurry of offense with six goals. Darwish came up huge with a right arm save on a Pacific breakaway with 3:00 to play in the first. The 49ers counterattacked off the rebound and junior center Jonathan Wong scored from point blank range to give Long Beach a 3-2 lead. Pacific came back and the first quarter ended 3-3.
The teams calmed down early in the second, but the 49ers struggled on their offensive possessions with two turnovers in the first half of the quarter.
Pacific sensed an opportunity after yet another turnover late in the second from Long Beach State. With 1:50 remaining in the frame they scored from long range on the left side. The goal silenced the crowd and gave Pacific a 4-3 lead.
“You give those guys a breath of air, they’re gonna hit so that was a challenge to get the right matchups in transition,” Arroyo said.
That was the first and last time an opponent led against the 49ers in the Golden Coast Conference tournament.
The 49ers were blessed with a power play on their next possession, and quickly took advantage. Senior utility Troy Kaltenbach received the first pass of the powerplay in the center and fired cage right to make the score 4-4 at halftime.
As the third quarter drew on with both offenses stalling, Pacific head coach James Graham, already on a yellow card, began arguing with the referees by directing loud complaints of biased officiating to his assistant coaches. Halfway through the quarter he was ejected from the game.
“Honestly I got a little bit of confidence from [the ejection] cause Graham is a great coach and he knows how to run his team and they’re not really used to not having him,” Stewart said.
Long Beach scored early in the shot clock on the next possession obliterating any momentum Pacific had and taking a 5-4 lead. Stewart piled on the damage with a powerplay goal from the outside late in the frame.
“We were just trying to isolate [Garret] Zaan over on the 1-2 side and just make their lefties play defense as much as possible,” Stewart said. “Once they dropped off we were open so it was just move the ball around and try to get the best shot we can.”
Darwish made a diving save on a point-blank shot to maintain the two goal lead and wake up the crowd. A late goal from Pateros gave Long Beach a 7-4 lead, but Pacific cut the deficit to 7-5 at the end of the third.
“[Pateros] really stepped up this past month. It’s hard to get acclimated and I think everyone sensed that he’s really turned the corner pretty quick,” Arroyo said.
The crowd cheered throughout the intermission between the third and fourth quarters.
Pacific found the goal they needed, cutting the deficit to one halfway through the final quarter. Stewart would have none of it scoring his crucial hat-trick goal on the next possession.
“He’s just so even keel, he doesn’t get jilted very easily and when the ball is in his hands he controls the game for us,” Arroyo said.
Stewart added a fourth goal with 15 seconds left making the conference-title-winning score 10-6. With the win, the 49ers receive a birth in the NCAA Men’s Water Polo Championship Tournament. They enter the tournament at No. 6 and will host No. 20 Pomona-Pitzer at 7 p.m. Saturday.
This article was updated with NCAA Tournament scheduling.