GLENDORA, Calif.-- If there was any doubt about the Cougars’ late-season surge, it was quickly erased on Thursday night. The Azusa Pacific women’s water polo team led by as many as three goals, and staved off a late Cal State Monterey Bay rally to hold on for a 9-8 victory and avenge an early season 8-6 loss to the Otters.
The Cougars held an 8-5 lead after three quarters of play, but the Otters (5-11) quickly closed the gap, notching the equalizer with 1:29 on the clock. But just as it looked like things were slipping away for Azusa Pacific (8-18), the team calmly responded on the ensuing possession, getting the game-winning score from Taylor Whitney before stuffing Cal State Monterey Bay’s final effort to seal the victory.
“I don’t think I was ever nervous, because I thought we were out performing them. We just weren’t finishing our shots as well as we could have. I had a sense of confidence in our team, and that’s a nice change from the beginning of the year. I trusted that they would be able to come away with the win,” said head coach Julie Snodgrass.
Whitney, who had one of the most impressive matches of her two-year career, scored a match-high five times, and on the game-winning play received a pass from Megan Minekime off a foul with two seconds on the shot clock, and backhanded home the go-ahead score from two-meters out to end the 3-0 Otter run. The goal was the 85th of Whitney’s career.
“I was really happy with her performance. Seeing her just want it, and having the desire to put it in the back of the net in a crucial situation was huge,” said Snodgrass. “She finds a way to make things happen, and sometimes I don’t even know how.”
And while Whitney highlighted the Cougar attack, Jennifer Horchler stole the show defensively. The program’s all-time steals leader, who was honored before the second-to-last home game of her four-year career, tallied a match-high five steals. Lora Donaldson followed closely with four of her own, while Jessica Armagost registered nine saves, including a 5-meter block.
“I was really pleased with our defense, especially in the second and third quarters. We let them get too many too quickly in the fourth, but as a team I’m really satisfied with our progress and with the individual players who stepped up. Jen was being Jen with five steals, and Lora, the Jen-in-training, had four. Jessica came up with some good tip-outs, steals, and swim outs. She’s improved so much, and I was really happy with what I saw from her today.”
The Cougars and Otters were knotted at 3-3 after the first break, but Azusa Pacific outscored the Otters 5-2 over the next two frames. Whitney scored four times in the run, while Brittany Garrigan and Angelina Castaneda each found the back of the net in the 16-minute span.
Garrigan led things off with 6:53 on the clock to put the Cougars ahead 4-3. Following a Monterey Bay goal Whitney put Azusa Pacific back on top to make it a 5-4 game at the half. In the third Whitney gave Azusa Pacific a two-score edge on a 6-on-5 goal, and Castaneda put the Cougars in front by three with 4:31 on the clock. Monterey Bay cut the deficit to 7-5 with 3:33 to go in the third before Whitney closed the quarter with another 6-on-5 score with 25 seconds left in the quarter.
In the fourth the Cougars’ stout defense disappeared, with the Otters scoring three consecutive times to make it an 8-8 game with less than two minutes to go. But Azusa Pacific put Monterey Bay’s comeback bid on hold with a goal from Whitney with 54 seconds to go, and a defensive stop from the Cougars clinched the 9-8 win.
Cal State Monterey Bay’s Jackie Walters recorded a hat-trick, while Kylie Fields scored twice. Minekime finished with four assists, and Maryann Slama logged three steals. Garrigan drew four ejections and two assists, and the Cougars converted three of their nine 6-on-5 chances.
The victory is the team’s fourth in the past week, and the Cougars will have a chance to add to that total when they welcome Chapman for a 11 a.m. home match on Saturday. Last season the Panthers handed Azusa Pacific one of its toughest losses of the season, defeating the Cougars 7-6 after trailing by as many as five goals.