Boys Varsity Water Polo · CIF CCS Div 1 Title Game this Saturday @ 11:50 at Independence High School

M-A water polo earns a trip to CCS Division I title game

Michael Heller goes up against Woodside’s Andrew Mills (11) in a game played earlier in the season. Photo by Bob Dahlberg/@bobd_photo .

Sonny Watkins scored a goal for the Bears. Photo by Bob Dahlberg/@bobd_photo.

Menlo-Atherton’s boys water polo players began making changes in how they positioned themselves in the pool and they did so on their own. The Bears are now positioning themselves for a Central Coast Section I title.

Michael Heller scored three goals and host M-A beat Woodside 8-4 in Wednesday’s semifinal match to advance to its first section championship match since 2016.

The sixth-seeded Bears (14-12) meet No. 4 Mitty (12-16) for the title at Independence High on Saturday. The Monarchs upset top-seeded Leland 11-9 in the other semifinal played at M-A.

No. 2 Woodside (19-7) won its first ever Peninsula Athletic League Bay Division title and beat the Bears twice, each time by one goal, during the season.

“The main thing leading up to this was the team taking the initiative to make changes,” M-A coach Tim Kates said. “They gave themselves the opportunity to excel at a higher level.”

Kates said they have been taking their cue from senior captain Zach de Haaff, who added a pair of goals.

“He has been leading the team meetings and sensed the importance of some recent changes,” Kates said. “They’ve been getting better and the last few weeks have been fun. Just positioning made all the difference.”

Kates, in his first year as the Bears coach, played at St. Francis under Terry O’Donnell, who was coaching the Lancers at Sacred Heart Prep simultaneously. He later coached at Menlo School under Jack Bowen and has been with the Stanford Water Polo Foundation for several years.

“I’ve had a few of these kids on my summer teams,” said Kates, who coaches the 16-under level. “These guys want to play in college and are super into it. They love the strategy, watching film and all that fun stuff.”

One of the toughest schedules in the section was also a positive, despite getting beat so often. The Bears played Monte Vista Danville, Acalanes twice, St. Francis and Bellarmine among others.

“Our schedule was insanely difficult,” Kates said. “I think finishing 12-12 was a feat in itself. But it also pushed the guys to play against the best teams. They some of the best water polo anywhere.”

Without Menlo School in the PAL Bay Division for the first in three decades, the league race was thrown wide open. M-A was the only team to win a PAL title other than Menlo in the previous 22 years and that happened twice.

“Woodside had our number,” Kates said. “(Bruno Antonino) did a great job with that team.”

Having played and coached with O’Donnell, he still looks to him for advice.

“I go to him all the time,” Kates said. “I admire him for knowing all the ins and outs.”

He’s been able to translate that into a postseason run and getting contributions up and down the lineup.

Gabe Montoya, Jake Blohm and Sonny Watkins also scored for M-A and goalie Jake Taylor recorded nine saves, including a penalty shot.

Heller, who also had two field blocks, and Julian Montoya, who added two steals, each had a pair of assists.

de Haaff is the most experienced and smartest player for the Bears. He drew five exclusions and recorded four steals, both categories that require a high level of understanding to consistently produce such results.

The Bears opened CCS play with a surprising 13-4 victory over Palo Alto. The Vikings, who won the CCS Division I title last year, beat M-A 7-5 earlier in the season.

M-A also beat Mitty 8-7 at a tournament in Mountain View about two months ago and lost to the Monarchs 13-8 at the Monta Vista tournament last month.

— Rick Eymer/Palo Alto Sports Online