Photos by Nicholas Mattson/Atascadero News
Atascadero High School senior goalie James Fisher goes up for the ball during a physical and emotional rivalry game with Paso Robles on Tuesday. The Greyhounds took an early lead, and held on for an 8-7 win at Paso Robles Municipal Pool. Below, AHS junior Kyler Warren shoots on goal.
Cats and dogs tangle in a tidal tussle
Every so often, rivalries need a game that stirs raw emotion, even a core sense of dissatisfaction that leaves a storyline wide open for resolution at a date to be determined. On Tuesday, the Bearcats and Greyhounds had such a game.
It began with a splash and ended in an uproar. To some, it was no surprise that the varsity water polo game between longtime rivals Atascadero and Paso Robles high schools erupted in anguish at the final whistle — with the Greyhounds snatching an 8-7 victory from the otherwise rolling Bearcats.
“It was some of the best water polo we played all year,” AHS head coach Jon Conrad said. “We had a pretty rough tournament over the weekend, and did not get the results we wanted. To come back from the disappointment of that tournament, and to play as steadily and as a team unit that we did, I was very impressed. We really played like a family.”
What was a surprise for both teams was the intensity the Greyhounds brought to the game in the first half, which led to a 6-2 halftime lead over the Bearcats.
“I think Paso was a little impressed,” Conrad said. “I think we were all a little surprised in how we came out, and we hung strong.”
Disapproval of the officiating was clearly vocalized from many Bearcats’ fans, and when the game was lost by just one score, it was a bitter pill for Paso Robles. PRHS head coach Duane McRoy rested his emotions on his experience, although this is one he would have wanted back.
“When it is a ‘Cats and ‘Hounds game, anything can and will happen,” McRoy said. “That sums it up.”
McRoy credited Atascadero’s defense on taking control of the game early, but it was the precious seconds at the end of the game that left the biggest bruise.
“We did not adjust to their pressure on the ball as well as we would have liked,” McRoy said. “We had some poor shot attempts early in the game. We battled back that second half, and I think if we get another minute … you hate to have it come down to one play, but doggone it we had a chance with seven seconds to call a timeout, but the crowd was cheering so loud the referees said they could not hear me. That was disappointing.”
Atascadero grabbed a 3-0 lead in the first quarter, before Paso Robles cracked the defense for a Mason Steiner score with 20-seconds left.
AHS junior Spencer Vega scored the first goal of the game at the 4:25 mark. Fellow junior Kyler Warren scored the second with 2:42 left in the first quarter, and senior Adam Fagundes hit on a shot with :38 left.
“They pressed us on top well,” McRoy said, “and got a lot of turnovers that way. We were not quick enough to adjust to that.”
It was the Atascadero defense that made the difference in the first half, muting the Bearcats’ best scorer through the first three quarters.
“They shut down Zach Tucker,” McRoy said. “He had some looks but they knew what to look for coming into the game.”
The second quarter belonged to Atascadero as well, with Warren hitting at the 4:23 mark, and it took almost 3:00 for PRHS’ John Nash to find an answer to the score. Nash scored at the 1:55 mark of the second quarter, and the Bearcats were on the chase, trailing 4-2.
“John Nash had a huge game for us, as far as the dirty work getting us started,” McRoy said. “Mason Steiner had a great game.”
Atascadero responded immediately, with a score by senior Calum Gower at the 1:43 mark, and extended the lead with a score by Alec Grant at the 1:17 mark.
“Alec Grant’s offense was incredible,” Conrad said, “and Calum Gower made some key steals. I was really proud of Calum, because he was getting beat up in there physically. He maintained his composure. He did not get excluded once, and I am so proud of him for that. It helped our team get a flow instead of playing man-down.”
Keeping all the players in the field allowed Atascadero’s defense to lead to a 6-2 advantage heading into the half.
“Our defense was incredible,” Conrad said. “They were playing out of their minds, and I think that helped us get into Paso’s head early.”
Playing from behind at halftime was not what McRoy had expected from his Bearcats, but they were not going to let the Greyhounds run away with the game, and Conrad tried to get his players ready for Paso Robles’ surge.
“At halftime, I warned the guys, it is their pool and they are going to come back strong, and they did,” Conrad said.
Nash and Steiner both scored inside the first 2:00 of the second half to bring Paso Robles within 6-4, and at the 4:01 mark, Ryan Abel skipped a shot off the surface of the pool and past AHS senior goal keeper James Fisher to pull the Bearcats within 6-5.
Paso Robles defensive intensity was up, and prevented a couple Atascadero shots from getting clean looks, but Warren was left wide open and fired a cannon shot past PRHS goalie Iver Hansen to pad a slim lead, 7-5, heading into the fourth quarter.
“I was impressed with my boys’ ability to maintain their calm,” Conrad said. “Even though the tide was turning in Paso Robles’ favor. They stayed calm, and that helped us endure and play as a team throughout the game.”
The battle on both sides was tough, and as the desperation rose, the offense took more aggressive shots on goal. Both Fisher and Hansen defended their goals with ferocity, and coaches recognized.
“What can I say about James Fisher, our goalie,” Conrad said. “He is such a rock.”
Hansen tied his own single-game save record, with 21 for the third time this season, and topped the single-season record.
“Outstanding game by Iver [Hansen] again, with 21 saves,” McRoy said. “That is outstanding. He broke the single season record today, and will smash it.”
As well as the goalies played, the offense snuck a few shots in, starting with Paso Robles at the 5:00 mark of the fourth.
Tucker finally found a window with man-to-man coverage and fired for a score as Grant closed, bringing Paso Robles back within a score, 7-6.
Back and forth, each team scratched and clawed for an advantage, churning up whitewater on the cool blue surface of the pool.
“It was a little too exciting,” Conrad said. “We always get too excited with Paso.”
Describing the game as “exciting” was an accurate description from the team with the lead heading into the final minutes, but for the trailing team, frustration seemed more appropriate — especially when a steal by Gower turned into a scoring counter.
Mid-pool, Gower charged the open water with possession and numbers on the Bearcats.
At the point, Gower found an open Warren on the left wing in the deep end. Warren struck with a catch-and-shoot score to put Atascadero up, 8-6, with 4:15 to play.
“Their guy Kyler Warren had four goals,” McRoy said. “He was the difference in the game. We did not do as good a job as I thought we would there.”
Paso Robles battled to the end, pulled back within a score, 8-7, on a Steiner goal, and the game was all but over.
A Fagundes’ shot on goal was swiped by the “Stop-topus” Hansen, whose wingspan and reaction speed rivals E. Honda, as he batted down shots in the deep end.
In the shallow end, a smaller Fisher guarded a larger goal, but was equally effective against the Bearcats’ sharpshooter Tucker [not Taylor], as Fisher picked off a shot from the Bearcats’ offensive leader.
Warren shot on Hansen, and was swatted, but Hansen’s pass to Steiner was short and junior Ean Marshall was able to get the ball to Fisher and steal valuable time from the ‘Cats.
Paso Robles missed a late opportunity to tie the game, and with less than 1:00 remaining, the crowd was raucous and the play in the pool was desperate.
“We brought it to 8-7 with 2:18 left,” McRoy explained, “and we had two looks. We had the possession before the end of the game, with Brandon Halebsky on the ball, and we had Zach Tucker, our best shooter, wide open on the one-two side. Brandon saw Jacob Cagliero on the four-five side. [Atascadero] saw that and pressed Jacob before he could get a pass over to Zach. When Zach finally got it, they closed on him. That was huge. They read the play better than we did, and that is a huge difference there.”
Atascadero took possession with :30 left to play, and only a few seconds differentiated the game clock and the shot clock.
Warren gave the ball another ginormous heave at the goal, and Hansen batted away the cannon-powered shot for his 21st save.
The clock had few precious seconds, and McRoy contended he was wailing for a timeout to set up a final play.
Instead, the officials watched the game play on, and Tucker was swarmed by Warren, which led to an errant pass with :03 left to play.
Vega beat Garrett Wilson to the ball, and the final whistle blew to cheers from Atascadero and boos from Paso Robles.
“I would have liked to see what we could do with seven seconds left on a set play,” McRoy said. “We just did not get that opportunity.”
After emotions settled, the coaches put it in perspective and came away with the messages they needed for their teams heading into the final few games of the regular season.
“Adam Fagundes’ leadership out there, he was everywhere,” Conrad said, “Ean Marshall’s defense was phenomenal. Owen Poist, a sophomore, stepped up to start today, and he did a great job. Spencer Vega’s defense was awesome. He made some really good steals for us.”
McRoy admitted that his Bearcats should not have been in that position at the end of the game, given that the Greyhounds took a commanding lead early.
“I’m proud of the guys,” McRoy said. “They didn’t quit. We did not play as well as we could have, but mostly because of Atascadero’s pressure on us. We worked on it, but they were better than we practiced. We are going to work our tails off tomorrow.”
The game was valuable to both teams.
“We needed that win,” McRoy said. “That would have put us at 4-1 facing Righetti next week, and now it will probably be a three-way tie, and we will be fighting for who we play in the tournament. It is huge on who we get to play there on the first day.”
Atascadero felt the game was just as important.
“This is a really big win for us,” Conrad said. “Paso is having a really good year.”
The game between the Greyhounds and Bearcats was a win for the rivalry, and both coaches will prepare for a possible rematch in the league tournament.
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