Nov. 18, 2012
WHITTIER, Calif. - For the first time since 1994, the Air Force water polo team claimed the Western Water Polo Association Championship, defeating top-seed UC San Diego, 9-7, in the title game Sunday afternoon at Slade Aquatic Center.
The 13th-ranked Falcons, seeded third in this year's tournament, grabbed the first lead of the game against the 10th-ranked Tritons, with a score from senior Garrett Womack (Redlands, Calif.). UCSD tied the score with the next goal, while Cruz Smithson (Sr., Capistrano Beach, Calif.) put the Falcons back on top at the 3:34 mark in the opening period. However, another goal by the Tritons tied the score at 2-2 going into the second quarter.
UCSD earned its first advantage of the game with a score midway through the second period, but the Falcons responded with two more scores, including a penalty shot by junior Josh Stedman (Brea, Calif.), to regain the lead. Still, the Tritons were able to get back on the board with just four seconds remaining in the half to tie the score at 4-4.
Junior Andrew Hamilton (Mechanicsburg, Pa.) scored in the first minute of the third period to push the Falcons ahead once again, while senior co-captain Brad Rajchel (Orlando, Fla.) added his second goal of the game to give Air Force a two-goal cushion. Meanwhile, the Tritons got back on the board to cut the margin to 6-5 going into the final stanza.
Air Force regained its two-goal advantage with a score from senior captain Dillon Fisher (Orange, Calif.) at the 6:51 mark in the fourth quarter, but the Tritons scored less than 15 seconds later to get back within one. There was no scoring on either side until three minutes later, when sophomore Petar Jackovich (New Lenox, Ill.) tallied his first score of the game to give the Falcons an 8-6 lead. Meanwhile, Hamilton added his second goal of the contest to push the margin to 9-6 with 3:10 to play.
With a three-goal advantage in the final minutes, the Falcons focused on ball control and defense, and despite a UCSD score with just 15 seconds on the clock, Air Force was able to hold on for the championship victory and the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Hamilton and Rajchel led the Falcons' offense with two goals each, while senior goalkeeper Mike Fish (Manhattan Beach, Calif.) had an outstanding game defensively, recording 14 stops.
At the conclusion of the championship game, the WWPA All-Tournament team was announced. Fish, Rajchel and Smithson was each named first-team honorees, while Womack was named to the second team. In addition, Smithson was tabbed the tournament's Most Valuable Player.
The Falcons will now head to the NCAA Championship, being held Dec. 1-2 in Los Angeles, Calif. It will mark the first time since 1994 that Air Force has qualified for the tournament, and the first time since the field was reduced to four teams.
No. 13 Air Force 9, No. 10 UC San Diego 7
Air Force - 2 2 2 3 - 9
UCSD - 2 2 1 2 - 7
AF Scoring: Rajchel 2, Hamilton 2, G. Womack, Smithson, Stedman, Fisher, Jackovich
UCSD Scoring: Donohoe 2, Stiling 2, Syka, Michalko, Butler