By Paul Meadors, Sports Editor
The only thing missing was the theme music from Rocky.
The underdog Golden West Trailblazers from Visalia sent shock waves throughout the Valley by beating three of the TRAC’s mightiest boys water polo teams en route to a D1 Central Section championship, outlasting Clovis High 12-11 in their home pool in a hotly-contested game before an energized and boisterous crowd at the Jim Coiner Aquatics Center on Nov. 21.
Golden West, the No. 4 seed, up from winning the D2 title last season and clearly not afraid of the big boys, beat Clovis North 8-7 in the first round, upset No. 1 seed Buchanan 9-7 to reach the final and became the first non-Clovis team to reach the final since 1994.
Once they reached that title game, the Trailblazers and Coach Rick Nordell had one thought – we might as well win the whole darn thing.
“We kept saying ‘the pressure’s on them to win, we are not supposed to be here,’” said Nordell, smiling from ear to ear, still shaking his head over the improbability of winning it all.
“Beating Clovis North, and I don’t know how we beat Buchanan and then to beat Clovis, is indescribable. I’m so proud of my guys for believing that they could do it.”
With a high sky above and a gorgeous 68 degrees, the Trailblazers not only had the look matching any top team in the Valley, but also the skills.
And for Clovis head coach Matt Berry, he knew the Trailblazers were a different team from earlier in the season, with no case of underestimating a team that found its groove.
“We were actually freaking out a little bit,” Barry said of the team that won 16 of their last 20 games. “They have three guys on their team who would be big contributors for anyone in the TRAC and we knew that coming in.”
After the see-saw game found Golden West (20-9) up 7-6 at halftime, the Cougars (23-8) seemed to have some major momentum headed to the fourth quarter thanks to a play rarely seen in polo – at any level.
With five seconds remaining ‘Blazers goalie Hayden Niederreiter heaved a desperation shot across the pool like a medieval battle engaging in catapult warfare. Cougars goalie Austin Bardon blocked it and returned fire – a 30-foot shot over the outstretched Niederreiter for a goal to tie the game at 9-9.
But that momentum wouldn’t last for Clovis. With 1:40 left and the score knotted at eleven, Golden West leaned on its big weapon – senior Jack Felsted, who delivered the game winning goal with his signature backhand move.
Golden West then staved off four Clovis shot attempts including one last gasp with 17 seconds for the improbable win.
And what a moment for the Nordell family and the coach’s kid – a fiery senior named Sawyer who scored three goals – playing for a father he adores and calls “The best, a very special man.”
“I’ve dreamed about this since I was in 7th and 8th grade and getting killed by Clovis teams 20-0 in these same pools,” said Sawyer. “And to not only play them and beat them is the greatest experience in my life so far.”
But for the Cougars and Coach Berry, they happened to run into buzz-saw, a team who seemed destined to rise from prize-fighting nobody to the darling of Central Section boys polo world.
“They had to be a winner today and Golden West was outstanding,” Berry said. “The bottom line is that they beat us.”