By Zach Cavanagh
IRVINE – The Dana Hills girls water polo team made history by simply jumping into the pool on Saturday, but glory remained just out of reach.
Dana Hills competed in its first-ever CIF-SS girls water polo championship game, but La Quinta of La Quinta established an early advantage and stayed just ahead of the Dolphins all afternoon to earn the Division 4 title, 11-8, at the William Woollett Jr. Aquatic Center.
Dana Hills (22-10) advanced after playing in only its second CIF-SS semifinal appearance on Wednesday, Feb. 13. The Dolphins’ previous semifinal appearance was in 2011 when head coach Carrie Pierce was playing water polo at Dana Hills.
“I couldn’t be any prouder as a four-year head coach to have those freshmen turn into seniors and to finish in the championship final game,” Pierce said. “I told them they have so much to be proud of to make it to this moment. And with half the team being sophomores, I think we’re going to keep making it to this spot.”
One of those seniors was Kaylyn Pierce, Carrie’s younger sister and Long Beach State-bound goalkeeper. Pierce made 13 saves for Dana Hills in the Final.
“She wasn’t even a goalie until her freshman year,” Carrie Pierce said. “It was maybe her first week of high school practice, and I was like, ‘You’re pretty tall, you know? Maybe you want to try goalie. And she was like, ‘I guess, sure.’ We throw her in, and she starts making blocks. It’s like, alright, this is your spot. This is where you’re going to find your niche. It’s been a four-year journey with her.”
Another senior leader was Lauren Bellavia, who netted six goals in the Final. Bellavia battled with La Quinta’s leading scorer, Savannah Hampton, who scored seven goals for the Blackhawks.
Lauren Bellavia pots her fourth goal for Dana Hills with this penalty shot. Dolphins trail La Quinta, 7-5, but keeping in step with the Blackhawks in Dana Hills’ first CIF-SS title game appearance. @danahillsGWP @DHHS_Podfather @DHHSOfficial @dhhs_athletics @DanaPointTimes pic.twitter.com/gDw2ME2DVp
— South OC Sports (@SouthOCsports) February 17, 2019
Despite Hampton’s efforts, the performance of Pierce and the Dolphin defense limited La Quinta to only its fifth game of 11 or fewer goals this season. La Quinta was averaging over 18 goals per game this season.
“That was the closest game that (La Quinta) have had the entire season,” Carrie Pierce said. “We knew what we needed to do. We had quite a few errors, but it’s a young group that’s going to learn a lot from this experience going forward.”
La Quinta established an early 3-1 lead in the first quarter and pushed out to a 5-2 lead in the second quarter. Dana Hills dealt with exclusions against its defenders and needed Kaylyn Pierce to step up with a penalty-shot save.
“That’s the tough part too, getting into foul trouble early,” Carrie Pierce said. “My go-to defenders being out for a significant part of the game and having to match-up my best players with their best players. It leaves it on the rest of the team to step up. That group is just so young that, feeling the environment and really being in the game, their youth showed, but they’re going to learn so much.”
Goals from Ashley Bellavia and Lauren Bellavia kept Dana Hills close going into halftime, 6-4.
The teams traded goals early in the third quarter, and then the Dolphins made a push.
After La Quinta went up 8-5 on a Hampton penalty shot, Lucy Kao unleashed a shot to the top left corner, and Lauren Bellavia crashed in on a post rebound from a Kat Besanceney shot to cut the deficit to one, 8-7.
Pierce came up with three more saves in the third quarter to give Dana Hills an opportunity.
The Dolphins thought they had tied the match, but the potential goal was waved off late in the third quarter.
Early in the fourth quarter, La Quinta sealed it up with two more goals from Hampton with the second being a particular back-breaker. Hampton took a penalty shot that Pierce was able to get a hand on, but when the ball hit the water, its spin carried it into the net for a three-goal lead, 10-7, with four minutes remaining.
“That was a tough momentum swing, for sure,” Carrie Pierce said. “It was one of those things where we had it in our grasp.”
From there, Dana Hills had the shot clock expire on itself three straight times, and despite a push forward and a final goal from Bellavia with three minutes remaining, the Dolphins couldn’t any closer.