Athletics News

Miracle At Sleepy Hollow; New Book Chronicles 2017 Drake High School (CA) Boy's Water Polo Team

Jan. 23, 2018

By Joe Sullivan

For most, November 11, 2017, was just another Saturday in cozy Marin County, which lies just north of San Francisco Bay. Few were mindful that the date marked the 99th anniversary of the armistice that brought an end to World War I. But for a tight-knit bunch of teenaged boys, it loomed large as the appointed day for the most important battle of their young lives. They were the seven senior stalwarts on the Drake High School water polo team, and at 6:30 P.M. they would be vying for the championship of California’s North Coast Section. The coveted title had narrowly eluded them in each of the two previous seasons. And once again they would be pitted in the finals against a powerful opponent from the much more populous East Bay area where the championship has resided every year since its inception. Could this bunch of North Bay upstarts somehow break that streak?

The Friday before Saturday’s championship game was a school holiday, and the entire team gathered at Mark Anderson’s house for nearly four hours before heading to the pool for practice. Swanny held forth for most of the assemblage, starting where he had left off at the end of the previous season by sounding the revenge theme. This time the movie he showed to do so was Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. That was followed by a stirring 12 minute video assembled by Laura Woodhead and featuring well wishes and exhortations by former Drake players. The one that stood out the most came from Dylan Woodhead who has become a starter at Stanford. “Just remember the team that wants it the most will win,” he told the boys. For a finale five-time Olympian Tony Azevedo shared his credo: “I went into every game knowing that no matter what happened I was going to give every single ounce of my energy.” Then, almost prophetically, he added, “There’s going to be moments in that game where you’re thinking I’m losing, but I know I’m going to win.”

To do so, Drake would have to topple a top ranked Campolindo team whose only two losses during the regular season had been to Orange Lutheran. Its 23-2 record included wins over Mater Dei and Sacred Heart whereas Drake had lost to all three of these teams, the only blemishes on its 23-5 season record.

Drake got off to a rousing start and opened a 4-1 lead. But just had been the case the year before, Campo came storming back to tie the game 5-5 at halftime. With its additional depth Campo was rotating players in and out to keep them fresh whereas from halftime on Swanny was sticking almost exclusively with his seven starters. In the third quarter that depth difference seemed to be taking a toll as Campo mounted waves of counterattacks to open a 7-5 lead that extended to 9-7 at quarter’s end. The fourth quarter seemed to promise more of same. But as leg weary as they must have been, instead of getting ground down, the Drake seven somehow managed to rev up to a higher gear than they may have ever found before.

Their comeback was also testament to the strength of the bonds between these longtime teammates, their confidence in each other and the self confidence that each of them possessed. Earlier on, Woodhead and the Hansons had been the team’s primary outside shooters. Moynihan, Sullivan and Venne had been more nearly role players—fierce defenders, strong swimmers very capable of leading counters and scoring from close in but not so much from the perimeter. However, when opponents focused their defense on the primaries that created openings for the others , and they were quick to seize on them. Early in the fourth quarter, Venne found one to pound in a goal from the right. Then, he scored again from the left to tie the game 9-9. Drake’s defense had also stiffened, but with a little under three minutes left to play Campo managed to regain the lead 10-9. Tension mounted as the clock wound down to less than a minute left to play when Sullivan maneuvered to get open for a shot that tied the score and led to overtime. Swanny would later call it, “The biggest goal in the school’s history.”

The game was being played at the East Bay’s Walnut Creek no more than a ten minute drive away from Campolindo’s campus in Moraga whereas the Drake campus in San Anselmo was more than an hour’s drive away. Yet the crowd seemed to have a decided pro-Drake tilt that got ever more so during the fourth quarter comeback. Students were mostly seated in bleachers at one end of the pool while family members and other boosters were mostly in a section on the sideline. In a chant that reverberated back and forth between them, the sideline section would shout “GO” and the students in the end zone would respond “PIRATES.” Any fears that Drake would wilt in overtime were quickly dispelled. To the contrary, the Pirates established total dominance. On their second possession, Spencer Hanson rose high above his defender to launch a cannon of a shot that put Drake in the lead. Then, the defense took command. Not only did Campo fail to score a goal in overtime, they scarcely got a shot off as Pirate defenders stole the ball repeatedly. Roland, who had been such a pillar in the goal all season, didn’t even need to make a save.

With a little over two minutes left, Sullivan scored again on a nifty skip shot to provide the final 12-10 margin. When the final horn sounded, it set off a celebration the likes of which a Drake water polo team had never seen before and may never see again. Swanny, who’d been dancing a jig on the sideline even before the horn sounded leapt into the pool even before the players could toss him in. Then the entire squad and coaches embraced in a tight huddle while jumping up and down. A little later Swanny and Anderson slipped aside for a separate embrace to cherish the fulfillment of a dream that had been ten years in the making.

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