Sharks come up just short of title in record season

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Malibu High came up just short against Palm Desert Saturday, falling 8-5 in the CIF title game to finish 30-1, the best record in school history. 

The cheers had faded, the chlorine dried, the sting of a lone blemish on a perfect record still smarted. Yet as Malibu High School varsity boys water polo coach Mike Mulligan gathered his charges for a meeting on Monday, two days after the Sharks dropped their only game of the season 8-5 to Palm Desert in the CIF finals, talk turned to the sweetness of the greatest water polo season in school history: 30-1.

“They started to realize that. I think we’re all kind of realizing that,” Mulligan said on Monday night, half-sighing. “It would have been great to win, but I don’t think it detracts from anything we’ve accomplished this year.”

Unbeaten all season, the Sharks not only defeated their opponents in 2013, at times they demoralized them. Their first two playoff opponents, Oxnard and Beaumont, found themselves on the receiving end of 22-8 and 20-8 thrashings, respectively. Malibu swept the season series with arch rivals Oaks Christian, first in a 12-10 overtime victory at home on Oct. 9, followed 14 days later by a decisive 12-5 away victory.

Headed into Saturday’s CIF final with the number one seeded Palm Desert High School Aztecs, the Sharks sported a 30-0 record and hopes of taking home their first CIF title in school history.

But in prep sports tournaments, as with the immortal warriors from the 1986 cult film “Highlander,” there can be only one.

A raucous crowd awaited at the William Woollett Swim Center on the campus of Irvine High School as both squads warmed up. The Aztecs leapt out to a quick three-goal lead in the first period, putting the third-seeded Sharks in an early hole. With two minutes left, junior attacker Owen Franz scored to cut the deficit to 3-1. The teams traded goals in the second, making the score 4-2 heading into halftime.

A quick goal by Franz coming out of the break trimmed the lead to 4-3 with the Sharks right in it, but the Aztecs responded with three rapid-fire goals to push the deficit back to four. Another goal by Franz got the Sharks to within 7-4, but that was as close as Malibu would get. Impressive play by Aztecs goalie Zack Rhodes shrank the shooting angles for the Malibu players, and the goal bars became their worst enemy.

“We had a lot of great opportunities to score, but they just had a great goalie and it was hard to get the ball by,” Mulligan said. “The guys got really precise with their shots, and started hitting the bar.”

Palm Desert scored early in the fourth to make it 8-4, after which the Sharks put on a full-court press and pulled back another, for the final score of 8-5.

If not for Rhodes’ heroics, the outcome might have been different. Mulligan estimated the Sharks hit the crossbar five times in the first quarter and four times in the fourth quarter. Franz scored all five of Malibu’s goals, while senior goalie Jack Thompson came up huge with nine saves and two steals.

Over the course of the season, Mulligan mentioned as standouts senior attackers Jens Cole and Henry Buckley.

The quest for the school’s first CIF championship will have to continue at least another year. Saturday’s loss now goes in the records books with 2008 and 2010 as years when Malibu reached the CIF finals, only to come in runners-up.

“The elusive title still escapes us,” Mulligan said.

Yet despite the loss, the program Mulligan founded has never been in better shape. Mulligan started the program in 1991 with a club team of 8th-graders. In 1992, he fielded a varsity team consisting

of freshman players during the first school year of Malibu High School. The program’s success has steadily grown to this point, where the Sharks have now won four straight Tri-Valley League titles, and reached the finals of CIF Division-VI three times in six years.

Of his 23 seasons in charge, he rates this one as the finest.

“This is by far record-wise, the best year. These kids really played their hearts out, they had a lot of chemistry, great communication, and it showed itself in the pool. They just had a fantastic season.”