For the fifth straight year, Lady Lancers run away with Freeway League title in water polo after 7-5 victory over La Habra

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Kristel Laceste

The Sunny Hills girls water polo team celebrates their fifth consecutive Freeway League Championship title after a 7-5 victory against the La Habra Highlanders.

Krishna Thaker

Capping off its 40th consecutive Freeway League win over the past five seasons, the Sunny Hills girls water polo team captured the championship title last week after a 7-5 victory over La Habra at Sunny Hills High School. 

“Our team culture is what makes us so strong because five years ago, we had a group of seniors that decided they would do everything they could possibly do to win, and they made it happen,” said girls water polo head coach Keith Nighswonger, who this season also celebrated his 1,000 win in his 32 years guiding the Lady Lancers. “Each group since then has taken a similar approach.” 

Emotions ran especially high after the game for the Lady Lancers, who triumphed an undefeated season that contributed to their fifth consecutive year earning the Freeway League title. 

“Winning felt so great, and I just feel so all over the place right now,” said goalie senior Mary Grace Rovira, who blocked 20 of La Habra’s shots at the net. 

Winning felt so great, and I just feel so all over the place right now.”

— goalie senior Mary Grace Rovira

The Feb. 3 Freeway League championship match was a seesaw affair until the Lady Lancers (26-10, 7-0 in the Freeway League) hunkered down and overpowered the Highlanders (18-10, 4-2 in the Freeway League) in the final quarter.

The Highlanders, starting off strong, scored the first goal of the match within 15 seconds of the first quarter, a play that elicited a spirited reaction from the La Habra stands, with many team parents and students holding signs for the Highlanders.               

But less than 15 seconds later, the Lancers tied the score 1-1 after a goal from utility player junior Sofia Smith. 

After numerous blocks by Rovira, La Habra’s persistent offense eventually broke the tie in the beginning of the first quarter, earning the Highlanders a lead of 2-1 entering the second quarter. 

“I told Coach I felt terrified because I kept letting in goals, and I knew [my team] was better than this,” Rovira said. “Coach just said, ‘Well prove it,’ and it worked.” 

Two minutes after La Habra broke the tie, the Lady Lancers knotted the score again in the second quarter after a shot from utility player senior Hailee Pike — who eventually ended up being the game’s top scorer with four goals — fired from the right side of the goal. 

“Out of all my goals in the game, the one that stood out most to me was the second goal of the night because it gave us the lead in the second quarter,” Pike said. “It was a textbook shot, but the play that made that shot possible was executed perfectly.” 

Blasting past multiple Highlanders, Pike circumvented the defense and quickly launched a shot from the far right side of the goal. 

More than three minutes into the second quarter, Smith scored another shot, earning the Lancers a 3-2 lead. A minute later, Pike widened the Lancers’ lead to 4-2. 

At the end of the second quarter, after a goal from the Highlanders, the Lancers maintained a close lead of 4-3, after La Harba managed to break past their defense and sunk in a shot at the edge of the goal. 

Coming back from halftime, Sunny Hills focused on being more aggressive with its offense, but it only mustered one more goal like the Highlanders, ending the third quarter still leading by one at 5-4.

“The first half of the game [was] sort of a warmup for our team, but we came back from halftime ready to go all out,” Rovira said. 

By the fourth quarter, the Lady Lancers’ broke open the game with strong offensive and defensive efforts.

“Our executive defensively was phenomenal,” said Nighswonger of his players, who shut out the Highlanders in the final quarter. “This was not a very high-scoring game, but we just kind of had to grind it out with defense, and we did.” 

With 6:15 left in the fourth quarter, Pike scored an additional point from the left side of the goal, a point that not only solidified the Lancers’ lead 6-4, but also felt like the nail on the coffin for the Highlanders. 

After a timeout by Sunny Hills with 1:27 left in the game, Pike gained another point for the Lancers after catching an assist from utility player senior Kristima Aryal while in front of the goal. 

“It’s such a rewarding feeling to score the final goal of the night,” Pike said. “After all the hard work we put into winning this title, being able to seal the deal [by] scoring the last goal is such an amazing experience.” 

The Lancer seniors also celebrated their Senior Night, during which their family members and friends gave them flowers and congratulatory signs before the game. 

“As a junior that has only ever played with the seniors, I am so thankful for the seniors,” Smith said. “They are the reason we are here today.”