BY STEPHEN LYNCH Special to The Californian
The Garces girls water polo team walked somberly from the pool and into an adjacent building for a team meeting as Hanford celebrated wildly.
The Salvucci Aquatic Center was filled with a stark contrast of emotions following the Bullpups' 9-8 victory over the top-seeded Rams in the Central Section Division III championship game Saturday morning.
After a hard-fought, back-and-forth match that featured two lead changes and seven ties, Melody Harris scored on a left throw with 28.94 seconds remaining to lift No. 2 Hanford to its first-ever section title in the sport.
"It was pretty intense," Garces coach Petra Koudelkova-Robles said. "It's a tough loss, but we definitely were seeded No. 1 for a reason. Unfortunately, it came down to one 5-meter shot. I don't want to say that lost us the game, but it was the key."
The loss was the second championship game setback in four years for the Rams (19-9).
Megan Ornellas led Hanford (22-9) with three goals.
"This has been an incredible journey," Hanford coach Linda Wright said. "We started our season off slow and progressively throughout the rest of the season we've come alive and we've peaked right at the right time."
Sarah Klang had a team-high three goals for Garces, which scored less than double digits for just the second time in its past nine matches.
Down 3-1 after the first quarter, Garces took a 7-6 lead with 4:21 left in the game on a hard, close-range shot from the left side of the goal by Klang that squeezed through the arms of Bullpups' goalkeeper Jenna Van Fossen.
Hanford responded with two straight goals to regain the upper hand. But Klang found the back of the net once again with 2:50 remaining, setting up the game's dramatic conclusion.
Koudelkova-Robles said the loss was heartbreaking, but not disappointing.
"This is the championship game," she said. "We worked really hard and we were here while everyone else had the day off. We worked really hard to earn the number one position. And that's what I'm going to leave with. I know this team is the number one team in my eyes."
Van Fossen had an outstanding game protecting the goal for Hanford. The 6-foot junior finished with 11 saves, including two on 5- meter (penalty) shots.
The Bullpups held Garces' top offensive threat, Joie Garcia, scoreless. Garcia came into the day with 91 goals this season, an average of 3.37 per game.
Garcia had four goals when Garces handed Hanford a 9-5 loss early in the regular season.
"They definitely put a good 2-meter defender on her," Koudelkova-Robles said. "We were still able to put the ball there, but Joie was pressed really hard and it is a very physical position to play. ... They put their strongest player on her and just beat up her up to the point that she was not able to get any shots off."
Hanford's physical style of play led to numerous 6-on-5 advantage situations for Garces. The Rams final three goals were scored with the Bullpups down a player due to exclusion fouls.
Garces goalie Kahala Taylor tallied 11 saves, but she had little chance at stopping Harris' game-winning shot, a bullet into the top right-hand corner of the net.
"I was nervous, but I knew that I needed to keep it together in order to make it," Harris said. "I usually take most of the 5-meter shots. And we practice them a lot at practice. It wasn't just any other thing, it was the biggest shot of my life."
With only two seniors on its roster, Koudelkova-Robles believes Garces will be back in position to challenge for a section title again next season.
"I don't think this is the end of us," she said. "... We have a great group coming back next year."