Chasing a five-goal deficit in the fourth and final period of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II championships water polo finals, Katie Vanderburg and Emily Stolken connected with stunning scores within a one-minute span to open the door for a possible Oakdale High comeback.
Then Rio Americano slammed it shut.
The Raiders scored the next two goals and took a Cassie Lee goal on the chin with 20 seconds to play before a game of keep-away would tick the final seconds off a 7-3 Rio win for the section crown at Woodcreek High in Roseville.
The decision forced Oakdale to settle for two consecutive runner-up finishes in the title game and awarded Rio its record 10th section title. The Raiders have now won every D-II title since the division opened in 2002, excluding only last year’s postseason, when they were bounced from the semifinals by Oakdale.
Oakdale would go on to fall to Del Oro in last year’s finale, and repeated the fate this year after failing to rally back to defend quick transition goals from a speedy Rio Americano squad. Between the fast break opportunities and frequent exclusions, it was too much for senior goaltender Hayley Benson to fend off in a contest that awarded her nine big saves.
“I’m just really realizing that it’s one of the last games I’ll ever play,” Benson said afterwards. “I know I’m going to miss my teammates and I can’t wait to see next year’s team kick some Rio butt.”
Rio struggled to score against Oakdale when the stage was even, but capitalized on power play goals to take a 2-0 lead at the half. The lead got out of hand in the third quarter when steals and long passes gave way to three straight counter attack scores.
Oakdale rallied a response with the fourth quarter scores and managed to win the shot margin 17-16, but couldn’t deliver the quality possessions that Rio had.
“Awareness to get back on defense just was not there,” Oakdale coach Diane Kline said. “That’s been the area where we have struggled against them in the past, giving up the counter attack.
“We knew that going in and talked to them about making sure to get back and cover up, but they are a very fast team.”
Katie Vanderburg (senior) gave Oakdale the advantage in possessions by nabbing the ball in all four swim-off sprints to start the quarters. The team managed to often get the ball to Lee (senior), who drew constant aggression from the Rio defense, but still managed quality attempts on goal and six shots within the frame.
Lee was awash in emotion after her fourth straight postseason trip with the varsity Mustangs.
“We all worked really, really hard to get this far, and it’s an accomplishment in itself,” Lee said amidst tears. “I hope next year’s girls can do the same but this time go all the way and get that little blue flag.
“Anything is possible with a lot of hard work.”
Rio did well to limit the production of sophomore standout Shelby Stender, who was held to just three shots. Two of them caromed off the cross bar.
Stolken, also a sophomore, was a surprise goal-scorer in the contest. She played tough on defense and on the perimeter of the offense. He score came at the end of a terrific power play run.
“It’s really exciting and a big honor to score in this game,” Stolken said. “I have two more years in the program and I really want to come back to this game.”
Stender and Lee were named to the All Section first team on Monday while Benson was a second team All Section selection.
Oakdale players were back in the pool on Wednesday to begin club polo practices generated to prepare the group for Junior Olympic water polo action this summer.