Sophomore Sophie Johnson wasn’t always ready to step into the limelight and take a game-winning shot.
A member of the Santa Barbara High girls water polo team, Johnson said she had confidence issues last season.
This year, however, game by game and bit by bit she has started finding herself.
“I finally gained a little bit of confidence. Last year, I was having a really hard time. I was on the bench most of the time but I just had to get out of my head this year and really take charge because I couldn’t stay in the back lines anymore,” Johnson said.
Tuesday night at the Elings Aquatic Center, the sophomore took an even bigger step and gained even more confidence against Dos Pueblos.
With 1:56 remaining, in a game that went to four overtimes, Johnson nailed a shot from the right-wing to lift the Dons to a 9-8 win over their crosstown rival Chargers in the semifinal of the Channel League Tournament.
“Did you see my face? I was shocked. I was just like ‘oh my God.’ I was just very, very shocked,” Johnson said after being asked about her reaction to her shot going in.
After a full-length game plus nearly four additional overtime periods, Johnson said she was also just happy that the game was finally over at the point.
“I really didn’t want to swim down the pool again so I was just hoping it would go in,” Johnson said with a laugh.
Johnson said the key to her being able to take that shot, as well as the key to her growing this season has been her teammates.
“I was finally able to open myself up to my team and make friends with all of them. Their encouragement is really what makes people be able to do what they can because a helpful team is what makes you feel confident in what you could do,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s shot was right on the money. Helping her was the fact that fellow sophomore Bella Obando was cutting toward the middle of the pool.
That cut was just enough of a distraction that allowed Johnson to get a clean look.
“Her drawing all the defenders away into the middle is what allowed me to be so open that I could shoot,” Johnson said.
The sophomore then fired the shot to the top left corner, getting it by DP’s star keeper, Anna Cable.
“Luckily I shot it hard enough and well enough into the corner that it just went right in,” Johnson said.
With the win, Santa Barbara will now face San Marcos in today’s championship match at 4:30 p.m. hosted at DP’s Elings Aquatic Center.
“We will be ready,” Johnson said.
Coach Mark Walsh said he was pleased with the movement by Obando which freed Johnson up for the goal.
“The key is that you have people moving so it’s hard to figure out what’s going on. If nobody’s really moving, it’s easy to focus on. If one thing happens, it’s easy but if two or three things are happening, then you’re getting distracted and you don’t really know what to concentrate on and then all of a sudden somebody gets free,” Walsh said.
“We’ve been working on trying to be more active but we’re not there all the time.”
In general, the Dons also seem to be playing their best water polo of the season right now.
This past weekend, Santa Barbara picked up two huge wins against Agoura and Mira Costa to close out the Irvine Invitational.
Tuesday, the Dons not only beat Lompoc in the first round but then defeated Dos Pueblos for the first time in four years thanks to a solid, all-around performance.
“Our offense is really starting to improve. Losing to DP 5-3 (earlier this season) and scoring three goals was a big wake up call for us that we have a way to go. We started to get more contributions from girls like Elise power, Bella Obando and Sophie Johnson. As long as they are contributing, then we can be a good team,” Walsh said.
Santa Barbara’s date with destiny nearly did not happen, however.
In the second overtime period, DP led by one, 8-7, with just over 30 seconds left.
Santa Barbara had the ball and Juju Martinez do amaral took a shot that just clipped the top of the goalpost with under 15 seconds remaining.
Cable, who played a spectacular game with a slew of saves, was going toward the ball when she stopped.
The senior keeper thought she had heard a whistle and assumed Santa Barbara maintained possession and would have to play it back out.
Instead, there was no whistle, and Santa Barbara’s Elise Power sprinted toward the ball, which was just a few feet from the goal, grabbed it and fired it in.
A stunned Cable tried to block the shot but was unable to overcome such a close distance.
“She thought she heard a whistle. A couple of other players said they heard a whistle. I didn’t hear it, personally but Anna is such a great player and such a smart goalie that there’s no way she would have done that if she didn’t think she heard a whistle,” DP coach Bryan Snyder said.
Had Cable just collected the ball, the Chargers would have won the game.
Before the start of the third overtime, which is when the game enacted Sudden Death rules, Snyder went over to his goalkeeper behind her net and said some words of encouragement.
“I just told her ‘hey you’ve been playing a heck of a game and keep it up and don’t let it affect you. Just block like you have been and we will be alright,’” Snyder said.
Cable overcame her mistake, making two saves over what would be the final two periods, before ultimately getting beat on the game-winning shot.
DP will still be playing for third place tomorrow against Cabrillo at 3:20 p.m. With a win, the Chargers will secure a spot in the postseason.
“It was definitely very weird (the way we lost) … Cabrillo has a girl that is really good so it’s not going to be an easy game. We have to make sure we win that game to get that automatic qualifier,” Snyder said.
“We have been working toward a CIF goal and we know we could play with any team in Div. 2 and are very confident if we could make it.”
SAN MARCOS 17, CABRILLO 6
The Royals rested their starters against the Conquistadores, allowing the way for some new faces to score some goals and lead San Marcos to a win in the semifinals over Cabrillo.
San Marcos was led by Sophia Panossian who totaled five goals while Kylie Rameson scored four.
Other goal scorers for the Royals included Madi Haaland-Ford who added two scores while Mia Amberget, Emma Grabenstetter, and Elaia Hamilton each scored one.
San Marcos got up early on Cabrillo, leading 6-3 at the end of the first quarter and shut down the Conqs in the second period to take a 10-3 halftime lead.
In goal, Elaia Hamilton and Lauren Schweitzer combined for 12 saves.
With the win, the Royals improve to 22-5 on the season and will face Santa Barbara High in the Channel League title game today at 4:30 p.m.