A few upside-down smiles conveyed disappointment after a hard-fought 10-7 loss to Del Oro at the Woodcreek Aquatic Center, but Oakdale varsity girls water polo goaltender Hayley Benson quickly turned them right side-up with a booming cry before post-game handshakes on Saturday.
“We made the section finals!” she bellowed.
And that was certainly nothing to frown about.
Oakdale reached the title game for the first time in school history, and knocked off an SJS legend along the way. The Lady Mustangs dropped No. 1 seed Rio Americano 4-2 in overtime the previous day to end Rio Americano’s streak of nine consecutive SJS championships.
The girls were awarded a runner-up plaque and earned section patches for a 3-1 run through a postseason historically dominated by Sacramento area schools.
The playoff run was a perfect send off for Oakdale seniors and even highlighted an emotional moment for Del Oro when head coach Mike Saldana proposed to assistant coach Jeannette Diaz via text on the scoreboard after both coaches had been dumped into the pool by their players. Saldana withdrew a ring presentation box as Diaz noticed the message and carefully slipped an engagement ring onto her finger while both were treading water.
But while Del Oro escaped with an emotional high, they had to fight Oakdale every step of the way for blue banner honors. Oakdale led 3-2 after a period, trailed 3-5 at the half and slipped to a 5-8 deficit after three quarters. Things got tense after Oakdale twice trailed by only two scores in the final period, but Del Oro avoided desperate Oakdale shots on goal in the final minutes and captured the last tally for a three-point lead that stuck.
“Our goal was to reach the section semifinals and we even improved upon that,” Oakdale coach Diane Kline said. “It was such a big step for this program to make it as far as we did. This is such a fantastic team.”
Senior Savannah Stender scored both of Oakdale’s overtime goals during the win over Rio Americano and tallied her 107th and 108th goals of the season against Del Oro. She was a constant hindrance to Golden Eagle players.
“It’s frustrating to lose but it’s such a big deal to have made it this far and I am just very happy,” Stender said afterwards. “We beat a team that had not lost a game in the playoffs for nine straight years.”
Katie Vanderberg scored three goals for Oakdale during the SJS finale and watched both Shelby Stender and Megan Tacket find the net once. Benson stopped several Del Oro shots on goal and played tough in front of the Oakdale net.
“It was real exciting to play in a section final and Del Oro is a really tough team,” Benson said. “I’m so proud that we got this far.”
Oakdale outscored opponents 291-147 this year and saw eight All Valley Foothill Conference selections after an undefeated league season. Savannah Stender earned MVP honors while Benson (junior) was named the goaltender of the year.
Senior defender Jennie Siemsen (15 goals) and junior attacker Cassie Lee (62) landed first team All VFC honors while freshman attacker Shelby Stender (57), junior utility Vanderberg (18) and junior utility Vikki Swarthout (10) made the second team. Senior defender Alissa Burford (three) was an honorable mention.
“It was a very successful season and we picked a good way to end it all,” Kline said. “We improved a lot from last year.”
Oakdale’s unfortunate draw on the same side of the bracket as the best SJS team in any division played out the way it seemed it would after the Mustangs fought to a semi-final appearance but were dispatched 15-7 by the Rio Americano Raiders.
Rio went on to blast El Camino 9-2 in the section finals for a one-sided SJS title.
Oakdale reached the semis with a thrilling 8-7 victory over the Sierra Foothill League runner-up, Woodcreek on Nov. 9. Neal Cadra and Braden Lee each scored two goals while Adam Lahey, Casey Whitley and Jeremy Neathery landed a goal each. Michael Tripp had 12 saves and Frank Rossier stopped two shots.
Oakdale dropped a game to Rio Americano despite two scores apiece from Neathery and Whitley. Lee, Brandon Terwilliger and Lahey landed one score each.
Tripp was named the VFC All League goalkeeper while Terwilliger, Lee and Cadra nabbed first team All VFC honors. Neathery and Lahey made the second team while Whitley reached the honorable mention team.