In a game full of heroes, senior driver Daniel Natalizio rose above the rest, netting a tremendous backhand in sudden death to lift the #8 UCSB men’s water polo team over #9 UC Irvine 13-12 at Campus Pool last Saturday. It was the fourth match between the two MPSF foes this year, and the third to be decided by a single goal.

“[Irvine]’s tough and they never give up,” said Head Coach Wolf Wigo. “We knew that coming in. We came out in the first half with a lot of energy, but it went down a little in the second. At the end of the game we were trading some amazing shots, great goals in a great day of water polo. It was a great game in front of a great crowd.”

The Gauchos (11-7) came out firing, seemingly determined not to let this game go down to the wire again. Sophomore utility Milos Golic found the net twice before the Anteaters (6-8) knew what hit them. Golic finished with four goals to lead UCSB, extending his scoring streak to 22 games and improving his MPSF-leading scoring total to 52. With 1:27 left in the first period, freshman driver Max Parrague put Irvine on the board with a difficult shot to the far post. Senior driver Miles Price contributed his only goal of the match in the waning seconds, giving Santa Barbara the 3-1 advantage going into the first break.

“I thought we came out great,” said junior driver Sean Castillo. “We did what we wanted to do in shutting down two of their guys, and making them beat us by doing what they normally don’t do.”

The homesteading Gauchos continued their offensive onslaught, outscoring Irvine 4-2 in the second period in a run that included an effortless penalty goal by Golic, a smooth backhand from freshman two-meter Noah Smith as he was mobbed by defensemen and a ridiculous shot from junior driver Stefan Partelow that first glanced off the crossbar, then off Irvine sophomore goalkeeper Matt Johnson’s head and in.

However, even with a sizable 7-3 lead at the half, the largest lead UCSB had over Irvine all year, UCI was not about to go away. Looking tentative and conservative, UCSB came out flat in the second half. The Anteaters wasted no time in capitalizing as sophomore two-meter Griffin Lerman scored twice to open the half. As the match wore on, Lerman proved to be the answer to Irvine’s suspect offense, finishing with five big goals to lead all scorers. Junior driver Thomas Kruip cut the Gauchos lead to 7-6 before junior two-meter Jesse Tootell found the net among the trees, but Irvine still would refuse to fold, scoring again to stay down by one going into the fourth period.

“At one point we were up 7-2, and then things just stopped going our way,” said Castillo. “We starting making mistakes that we were trying to stay away from, and before we knew it they’d tied the game up.”

In the fourth, Irvine took their first lead of the game off another Lerman goal during a six-on-five possession, going up 9-8. Natalizio, who had been quiet all game, stepped up to tie the game at 9-9 with a powerful strike to the near post, but with 46 seconds left in regulation Lerman forced his way through the middle for his fourth goal of the match, putting UCI up 10-9. With time winding down, Castillo brought the home crowd to their feet with a textbook lob over Johnson to send the game into overtime.

“Without a doubt, [Natalizio]’s backhand [in sudden death] was the play of the game,” said Wigo, “but we never would have been there if [Castillo] hadn’t made that lob.”

In overtime, Golic beat Johnson on another pentalty shot to give Santa Barbara a narrow 11-10 lead going into the second overtime period. Both teams traded goals in the next period until Lerman again found the net with time running out to force sudden death. After a few tense possessions by both squads, Natalizio netted the game winner on the near post in front of a jubilant crowd that subsequently mobbed him.

“When we tied it up to go into overtime, I don’t think one person on the team thought we weren’t going to win,” said Castillo. “We wanted it more, and when push came to shove we did great on defense, forced a couple of ejections. In sudden death we were pretty confident it would be over soon, but we kept going back and forth until [Natalizio]’s goal.”