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CMS celebrating its national title (photo by Steve Woltmann)

National Champions! CMS Comes Back for Dramatic 6-5 Win over Redlands in USA Water Polo National Finals

ROCK ISLAND, Ill. - The first time the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps men's water polo team played for the USA Water Polo Division III national title in 2019, it dropped a defensive battle to Whittier 5-3. With six minutes left in this year's finals, Redlands led the Stags 5-3 and it felt like the exact same script was happening again. 

But this time, CMS flipped the script. 

Sophomore Donovan Davidson, who came into the day with nine goals on the season after missing almost his entire freshman campaign due to injury, scored on back-to-back possessions with 1:41 left and 48 seconds left to give CMS its first lead of the game 6-5. Senior Cristian Pang then had a field block on a Redlands shot attempt on the final possession and then killed the final five seconds before throwing the ball in the air in celebration, as the Stags earned the first national title in program history, after previously finishing as runner-up in 2019 to Whittier, and in 2021 to Pomona-Pitzer in overtime. 

Last year, Redlands knocked CMS out in the SCIAC Semifinals and went on to earn the bid to nationals and win the national title, and the Bulldogs led almost the entire way in their quest to repeat. However, Auggie Aliaga changed the momentum right after Redlands went up 5-3, getting a steal in the Bulldogs' defensive end and breaking in one-on-one against Redlands goalie Roberto Barrrera, beating him high to make the score 5-4 with 5:29 left. 

The second big momentum swing came when Redlands earned an exclusion with 2:36 to go and called a timeout, trying to set up a play for an insurance goal. The Bulldogs were unable to get a shot off in the 20 seconds with an extra man, but still got off a quality shot before the shot clock ran out. Senior goalie Aidan Nettekoven made a big save to keep it a one-goal game, and Davidson came up with the equalizer from the right side of the cage with 1:41 to go, ripping a shot that tipped off Barrera's hands but had just enough to go over the line.

Spencer Sellwood, who defeated CMS with a goal in sudden death overtime in the regular season finale, tried to do it again, but missed high with 1:16 to go and the Stags got the ball back with a chance to take their first lead of the game. 

CMS got the ball in to Luke (Bear) Weigle with five seconds left on the shot clock, who drew an ordinary foul. On the re-start, he kicked it back out to Davidson on the left side of the net, and from a sharp angle, Davidson was able to convert a cross-cage shot inside the right post with 47 seconds left to put CMS in front for the first time. 

Redlands called a timeout, and were able to get possession inside of five meters with a chance to tie, but Pang was able to get the field block to give CMS back the ball with the shot clock off. Aliaga kept possession away from Redlands for most of the last 25 seconds, and then threw a cross-pool pass to an open Pang, who was able to ride out the final seconds to get the win. 

"I think it was a really competitive game," said fifth-year senior Kyle Ballack, the lone Stag remaining from that 2019 Whittier defeat. "Low scoring, pretty much within one or two goals the whole time, and it really took resilience to score two at the end there."

CMS and Redlands had split two meetings in the regular season, with the Stags winning 9-8 at home on a goal with two seconds left in regulation, and the Bulldogs taking the rematch at home 12-11 in sudden death on the Sellwood goal. The third meeting saw CMS pull away in the second half for a 9-4 win in the SCIAC Championship, but the fourth meeting reverted back to the one-goal trend between the two rivals. 

"Playing the same team four times in a year is always a challenge," said CMS head coach Greg Lonzo. "We know each other incredibly well. I think the resilience with this group has been there all year long, and we did a tremendous job when it came down to it at the end of the game - the determination, the staying together and staying focused on the task at hand. I don't think we ever really got rattled being in such a close game, we are really comfortable in those situations, and the two great goals at the end of the game to lift us up was phenomenal. Kudos to Redlands, they played an incredible game, that's a really tough to play."   

Nettekoven finished with eight saves and three steals, while allowing just five goals to cap off a stellar career that saw him win the 2022 SCIAC Defensive Player of the Year and the 2023 SCIAC Tournament Most Outstanding Player honor. Pang and Weigle added goals in the first half to tie the score after Redlands took a 2-2 lead, and Aliaga scored twice in the second half to cut two-goal Redlands leads to one, setting up the dramatic back-to-back goals from Davidson to give CMS the title.

"I thought it was a super competitive game," said Davidson. "Everyone was antsy and excited because it was the championship, but I'm glad we kept it composed and pulled out the win in the end."

CMS graduates nine seniors off the 2023 team, who were unable to play in their rookie seasons due to the pandemic, and then finished as the runner-up in overtime as sophomores in 2021, before finally getting to complete their four-year quest for a national title. Aliaga, Ballack, Pang, Nettekoven, Ashwin Rhodes, Harry Rinker, Gavin Rosser, Eli Schwarz and William Thomas all get the rare privilige of ending their athletic careers with a championship win.