CORONA — The Big VIII League girls water polo championship appears up for grabs this season.
King and Santiago have been the most dominant programs in the Big VIII League over the past decade, but the Centennial girls water polo team hopes this is the year the title finally winds up in their hands.
Bailey Desmond led the offense with five goals, while Clarysa “CJ” Sirls anchored the defense with 10 blocks as the Huskies remained unbeaten this season after scoring a 9-5 road victory in Friday afternoon’s league showdown between teams who are top-ranked in their respective CIF Southern Section divisions.
Centennial had a historic 2021-22 campaign, as that team claimed the program’s first CIF Southern Section and CIF State regional championships. But the Huskies finished second to King in the league standings that season. Desmond was a sophomore that year and said winning the league title this season is a high priority.
“That is the last thing on my bucket list for my high school career, and this is my final year to check that off,” Desmond said. “I am really excited about making it happen. I believe we have what it takes to finish on top.”
Desmond helped Centennial (16-0, 2-0 in league) get off to a fast start, scoring a pair of goals in the opening 2 1/2 minutes of the match. Santiago’s Hayley Jane Pence scored to halve that deficit, but Desmond scored two more goals and Caroline Manley added another to give Centennial a 5-1 lead early in the second period.
Santiago (0-1 in league) clamped down defensively and held Centennial scoreless during a 10-muntes stretch between the second and third quarters. However, the Sharks managed to score only once in that same time frame and never got closer than three goals the rest of the way.
The pace picked in third quarter, as the squads combined for five goals during the final three minutes of the period. Kaia Boone scored twice for Centennial, and Manley picked up her second goal of the match. Pence scored her third goal of the day, and Olivia Re scored the other goal for the Sharks in the third quarter.
Desmond saved her best goal for last, ripping a no-look, backhanded shot into the cage to give the Huskies a 9-4 lead with 4:35 remaining to play. There were several oohs and ahs from the crowd when Desmond took possession of the ball in front of the net and fired away with her head still underwater.
“I kind of surprised myself there,” Desmond said of the highlight-reel goal. “There are times when you just have to be a little crafty. I was aware of where I was and where the cage was. I just hoped it was on target.”
Many coaches would disapprove of such a low-percentage shot. Centennial’s Crystal Voss is not one of them.
“I love when she does that backhand,” Voss said. “Sure, it’s a risky shot, but she makes it look so smooth.”
Centennial’s defense also was in top form Friday afternoon. Sirls made two saves in the opening minutes and continued to turn away shots throughout the match. Sirls got plenty of help from her teammates, as the Huskies forced several turnovers, including a pair of shot-clock violations when they were down a player.
Voss attributes this season’s strong start to hard work and more athletes committing to play for club teams.
“Our entire starting lineup have been playing club since the end of last season,” Voss said. “They are really dedicating themselves to the sport and they are bringing all the skills they’re learning to this team. We also started training a little earlier, working in the weight room and on technical things. That is all showing now.”