To the delight of some and the surprise of most, Harvard High's water polo team ascended from the Valley to challenge for the Southern Section 2-A championship Saturday at Belmont Plaza in Long Beach.
The Saracens were the first Valley team to advance as far in six years and only the second ever. Costa Mesa, their opponent from Orange County, where the sport is perhaps second only to marathon tanning, had been there before. The Mustangs had even won it before, just one year ago.
That was the glaring difference as Costa Mesa successfully defended its title, defeating upstart Harvard, 16-7.
Returning All-Southern Section two-meter man Shane Coons had four goals, three in the first quarter when Costa Mesa scored the first six goals of the match.
"We went out and started playing well after the first minute or so," Coons said. "I think our experience from last year helped us to prepare for this game."
The Mustangs defeated San Luis Obispo, 11-9, in the championship match last season, and five seniors started against Harvard, which had just two seniors in its starting lineup.
One of the Costa Mesa seniors, Tony Litwak, scored three goals. Junior Steve Kunst also had three. Brad Kreutzkamp and Mike Kennedy each had two.
Costa Mesa (24-6) led, 6-0, after one quarter and 9-2 at halftime, effectively taking the game right at the Saracens.
"That's what we needed to do, especially in a game like this," first-year Costa Mesa Coach Tony Bell said. "You let a team like Harvard into the game and it'll be tooth and nail all the way."
As it happened, the Saracens were never in it.
"The start took something out of us," Harvard's Peter Richards said. "We were basically stunned."
Mustang goalie Scott Taylor had eight saves and repeatedly started fast breaks that beat Harvard back into its own end.
Costa Mesa extended its lead to as many as nine goals midway through the fourth quarter, despite the efforts of Saracen goalie Larry Bercutt, who had 11 saves.
"We were playing the way we wanted to," Coons said. "We didn't want to let up at all."
Harvard (25-6) was led by Richards, one of the two seniors. Richards had three goals and four other players each scored one.
"They came out and dictated the tempo of the game and there was nothing we could do," Harvard Coach Rich Corso said. "To play in a championship game like Costa Mesa has means a lot. My kids came out very tentative."
In its five playoff games, No. 1-ranked Costa Mesa outscored its opponents, 86-30.
Despite the loss, the four playoff victories that preceded it were the culmination of a highly successful season for the team and Corso. Harvard breezed through an undefeated Frontier League season.
"It's been a fantastic year," Richards said. "One thrill after another. We trained for this game all year. It's a shame it ended this way, but we'll be back.
"The greatest thing is, we didn't ease up all game. They were the better team, skill-wise, but we didn't let up."
Corso, although dejected, still was able to stomach the defeat.
"I'm disappointed but I'm keeping it in perspective," he said. "If we had won it with all these young kids it would have been some kind of miracle. It would have been the Pepto-Bismol upset of the year."