The Saddleback men's water polo team won its first regional playoff game in nine years on Thursday with a 6-3 victory over Riverside City College at Los Angeles Valley College. The Gauchos will face perennial power Golden West College in the regional quarterfinals on Friday.
Saddleback hasn't won a CCCAA Southern California Regional Playoff game since 2008 and had the task of facing a Riverside program that ousted them from the Orange Empire Conference Tournament five days earlier. The Gauchos persevered, sending the Tigers packing and advancing to the quarterfinals where they will meet Golden West College on Friday.
Saddleback entered the regional as the No. 9 seed and Riverside the No. 8 seed, as the two programs were evenly matched having split two contests during the season. The Gauchos scored first when Nathan Benge scored his 59th goal of the season at the 6:11 mark of the opening quarter. The Tigers answered when Tyler Strabel evened the score less than 30 seconds later.
Saddleback opened up a 3-1 lead on consecutive goals from Max Gonter. The sophomore from Capistrano Valley High School scored his team-leading 91st goal of the year when he beat Riverside goalkeeper Kristopher McVeigh for a 2-1 lead with 5:24 remaining in the opening quarter. Less than two minutes later he notched his 92nd goal of the year with 3:44 remaining as Saddleback took a 3-1 after the opening eight minutes.
The game then turned defensive, as neither team was able to score in the second quarter. Riverside would finally break through when Strabel scored his second of the game in the opening minute of the second half to cut the Gaucho lead to 3-2.
The two squads traded goals as Saddleback had a 4-3 lead heading into the late stages of the third quarter. Keeon Jabbour would break the ice with his 52nd goal of the season for a 5-3 lead with 2:29 remaining in the third quarter. Saddleback then added an insurance goal with 6:45 left in the game when Benge added his 60th goal of the year for a 6-3 lead.
The win propels Saddleback into the regional quarterfinals where they will meet top-seeded Golden West College on Friday at 9:00 AM. The Gauchos and Rustlers played once this season with Golden West winning 15-4 on October 18.