WHITTIER, Calif. - The UC San Diego men's water polo season came to an end Sunday afternoon as the Tritons dropped a heartbreaking 9-7 decision to Air Force in the title game of the Western Water Polo Association (WWPA) Championship Tournament.
UCSD finished the year with a 16-8 overall record, which included ten wins over NCAA Division I nationally-ranked opponents.
Seniors John Butler and Brian Donohoe received all-tournament first team honors for their outstanding play over three games. Butler finished the weekend with six total goals, scoring three in Friday's win over Whittier. Donohoe tallied two goals against Air Force and two in UCSD's win over UC Davis on Saturday. Junior Josh Stiling, the WWPA Player of the Year, earned second team honors after finishing with a total of seven goals.
UCSD had defeated Air Force three times during the regular season.
"I think you can pick any sport, it's never easy to beat a team a fourth time, said UCSD head coach Denny Harper. "Both teams knew each other real well. I thought it was a well-played game. They got some really timely goals, some timely stops. They were the better team today. I thought our offense was actually moving along pretty well, the problem was we just couldn't put the ball away. Their goalie had an exceptional game."
The first quarter was back and forth with Air Force the first to strike after two minutes of play. Luke Syka answered back for the Tritons just a minute later to even it up. Donohoe and Falcon Cruz Smithson each scored in the final three minutes of the first period to keep it even at 2-2.
Nearly half the second quarter's minutes would be gone before Stiling broke the tie at 4:22. The theme of the first half continued as the squads went back and forth, each netting two goals as Donohoe tied the game at four with only four second before the halftime break.
Despite the tight defense, Air Force was still able to have relative success with offense coming from the inside. The Falcons scored twice in the third quarter as Matt Michalko netted the Tritons' lone goal of the third frame.
As the teams entered the final quarter, Air Force continued to make their push by scoring first to go up by a score of 7-5. Stiling answered right back, scoring off a foul just outside the five meter line. The Falcons tacked on two more goals over the last four minutes of the game. Butler would lessen the gap with 15 seconds left off a lob from the lefty side, but time expired and the Falcons earned the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Championship Tournament.
Cameron Ravanbach finished the game with ten saves as the Tritons' last line of defense. Air Force's Mike Fish, a first team all-tournament honoree, finished with 14 saves.
"We had a lot of things to deal with this year on a lot of fronts, said Harper. "I was real proud of how they handled all the different things that came our way. We will regroup as a program because we always do. Im happy for Air Force and I think it's great they will get to experience this (the NCAA Championships) for the first time."
It was Air Force's third WWPA title in program history and first since 1994.
UCSD 2 - 2 - 1 - 2 = 7
AF 2 - 2 - 2 - 3 = 9
UCSD Saves: Cameron Ravanbach 10
AF Saves: Mike Fish 14
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