By Matthew Snyder
PALO ALTO – Entering this season, the St. Ignatius girls water polo team created a lofty goal.
The Wildcats wanted to make the Central Coast Section Division II championship game for the second time in four seasons, but went a step further.
They wanted to bring home the first CCS girls water polo title in school history.
On Tuesday at Gunn High School’s outdoor pool, the second-seeded Wildcats earned a spot in the CCS Division II final with a 9-4 victory over sixth-seeded Presentation.
The Wildcats’ (11-14) two senior team captains led the way in the team’s third win over their West Catholic Athletic League rivals this season.
Center Carla Tocchini scored three of SI’s first four goals on the way to a game-high five scores and goalie Francesca Puccinelli had 11 saves and several key interceptions to disrupt dangerous Presentation attacks. Four different Wildcats scored the other four goals.
“It’s a great win for us,” said St. Ignatius head coach Paul Felton. “We were able to put the ball in the goal when we needed to. Now we have three more days of practice to prepare for Saturday.”
Felton said that the Wildcats’ challenging regular-season schedule, which has contributed to their sub-.500 record, helped prepare them for Tuesday’s semifinal. Even though they weren’t at their best against the Panthers, they still found a way to advance to the next round.
“We have a losing record, but we’ve been playing some of the top teams in Northern California. So, despite a lot of losses, they’ve gained a lot of experience and a lot of confidence,” Felton said. “We have a lot of girls new to varsity this year who are juniors. The game is just so much different at this level . . . If you lose, you’re out. [If] you win, you keep going. It’s still sinking in for a lot of them.”
After four minutes and 50 seconds of scoreless play to begin the game, Felton took a timeout and told his team to work on getting better shooting angles. Just 7 seconds later Tocchini, who was named first-team All-CCS Division II in 2011, opened the scoring when she capitalized on a Presentation penalty.
Emma Malysz equalized for the Panthers (16-11) exactly a minute later, but senior attacker Caoimhe Slevin put the Wildcats back up for good with a neat finish from the right side of the goal with 1:45 remaining in the first quarter.
St. Ignatius pushed its lead to 4-1 at the halftime break, but Presentation cut the advantage to 5-3 with just 40 seconds left in the third quarter.
“[Presentation] had us back on our heels and the momentum was kind of in their favor,” Felton said. “But we ran some of the plays that we’ve been running for the last couple weeks — stuff that we’re comfortable running. When you put the kids back into their comfort zone, that’s when they get their confidence back. Then they put a couple more goals on the board and they’re not playing nervous.”
Tocchini helped provide the goals, but it was Puccinelli – an honorable mention selection on the All-CCS Division II team a year ago – that provided a calming element in defense with her shot-stopping.
“We have a lot of resilience within our team and we have something deep within us that makes us want to win,” Puccinelli said. “We have that winner’s attitude about us.”