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By Zach Cavanagh

IRVINE – It was the same time, same place and same teams, but a different result that sent the San Clemente girls water polo team back to the CIF-SS Final on Wednesday, Feb. 13.

For the second consecutive season, San Clemente met up with Santa Barbara in the CIF-SS Division 2 semifinals at the William Woollett Jr. Aquatic Center in Irvine, but a strong defensive effort and timely goals pushed the Tritons over the top, 7-5, to advance to their first CIF-SS Final since 2015.

“I think we’ve learned lessons in that situation today,” San Clemente coach Logan Powell said of the tight contest. “It was fortunate that we got away with a win, and it was a super valuable lesson for us to learn. Almost more important than the win was getting those lessons going into the Final.”

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San Clemente will attempt to win its first CIF-SS championship since 2011 against Santa Margarita on Saturday, Feb. 16 in Irvine. Earlier this season, the Tritons lost to the Eagles, 14-10, at the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions.

“They’re going to be a tough game,” Powell said. “I was always taught that you get to the Finals and then the Finals take care of themselves. You just lay it out there, have at it and let the best team win.”

In the semifinal, San Clemente held a 3-2 lead out of halftime.

Santa Barbara got a point-blank save to open the third quarter and came down to score to tie the game, 3-3.

Both teams hit their fair share of crossbars and posts in the game, but the Tritons used a post shot to take the lead later in the third quarter. Off a post rebound, Aidan Flynn charged in and put home the loose ball for the 4-3 lead.

San Clemente maintained its lead with back-to-back blocks off the outstretched arms of Juliette Clark and Kendall Patrick.

In the final minute of the third quarter, Santa Barbara tied the game again, 4-4, and Triton keeper Kaylee Wickes dove to her right to make a long-range save to maintain the score in the final seconds.

Early in the fourth quarter, San Clemente again survived a post shot, and Wickes collected another save. Clark then put home her offensive opportunity to put San Clemente ahead, 5-5.

Thirty seconds later, Santa Barbara tied the match once again, 5-5, but that was the last offense the Dons would manage.

Coming out of a timeout, Alex Higginson potted her second goal of the game on a rifle to the top left corner for the 6-5 Triton lead.

After another Santa Barbara post and Wickes save, Brooklyn Aguilera followed through on her second goal of the match for a 7-5 lead with 1:48 to play.

The Tritons drowned out Santa Barbara’s final attempts to seal the win.

Santa Barbara had struck first in the match midway though the first quarter, but the Tritons scored twice in the final minute of the opening fram for the lead.

Aguilera tossed her first goal, and Higginson capitalized on a cross-zone pass from Adrina Daniel for the lead, 2-1.

In the second quarter, Higginson sent a no-look pass to Lang Csira who kept the ball away from the Santa Barbara keeper for a spinning backhand shot and a 3-1 lead.

Santa Barbara put in their second goal with just under two minutes left in the first half.

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