Members of the Santa Monica High girls water polo team held hands as they jumped into the pool for their biggest game of the season. When the game was over, they got to hold a piece of history.
The Vikings seized the program’s first-ever CIF Southern Section championship Saturday at Woollett Aquatics Center in Irvine, defeating Pasadena-Westridge 8-6 in the Division 6 title game.
It was a landmark accomplishment for a squad that was ranked atop its competitive division for much of the season and a major achievement for a program that had engineered numerous deep runs in the postseason without any hardware to show for it.
After the finals on Saturday, players gripped a championship plaque and held up their index fingers as they posed for photos. They’ll have more evidence of their success at Samohi soon.
“It was awesome,” coach Matt Flanders said. “It’s going to feel good to hang that banner up in the gym.”
The Vikings (30-3) had put together a stupendous season even before the playoffs began, defeating Division 3 powerhouse Manhattan Beach-Mira Costa and topping Division 2 stalwart Dana Point-Dana Hills. Flanders guided the team to its fourth consecutive Ocean League championship.
After losing several key seniors to graduation last season, Samohi players improved their skills in the club ranks during the offseason. And as they cruised through the regular season, they remembered what it felt like to lose in the section semifinals a year earlier.
“The girls who remained formed such a great bond,” Flanders said. “They built up the teamwork and all the cooperation necessary so that our team was really a team. … When we got to this year, they were ready to go. They were in shape, and they had all the communication down. It was awesome to see it all come together like that.”
The Vikings clinched their return to the semifinals with relative ease, crushing Pasadena-Poly 22-2 in the opening round at home Feb. 18 and blanking Santa Ana-Segerstrom 17-0 in the quarterfinals on the road Feb. 20.
Samohi secured a spot in the championship game by topping Lompoc-Cabrillo 7-3 in the semifinals Feb. 24 at Valley High School in Santa Ana.
“It was a little bit of a monkey off our back because we’ve been to the semis so many times,” Flanders said. “To get past that was a relief and a validation that we could do it.”
The Vikings strung together one of their best performances of the season in the final, limiting opportunities for the two best Westridge attackers after giving up the first goal of the game.
Samohi made its push in the second quarter. Trailing by one with 5 minutes 59 seconds left in the half, the team took a 4-2 lead with three consecutive goals by juniors Kalen Lehmann and Audrey Hattori and senior Olivia Schwartz.
Westridge cuts its deficit to 7-6 with 1:58 remaining in the game, but junior Shanna Stevenson gave the Vikings insurance with a goal just 10 seconds later. Stevenson and Lehmann led the squad with two goals apiece.
Junior goalkeeper Amalie Luneng-Solli anchored a Samohi defense that gave up just 11 total goals in four playoff games.
“The girls played the most intense four quarters of water polo I’ve seen them play in a long time,” Flanders said. “This team surprised me continually. They rose to every occasion.”