Three years ago, Courtney Porter thought he was done coaching high school water polo.
Nicole Iturraran and Lizzy Macfarlne talked him out of retirement.
Today, the trio and the Tokay High girls water polo team will take on the defending Sac-Joaquin Section Division II champions in Rio Americano. Tokay, the No. 2 seed, faces No. 1 Rio Americano, out of Sacramento, in the section title game at Tokay’s swimming pool. The game is scheduled to start at 1 p.m.
“It’s going to be a tough game,” said Iturraran, who has scored 120 goals this season, after practice on Friday. “We want it and we’re going to bring it tomorrow.”
The Tokay-Rio Americano contest was scheduled to take place at Woodcreek High of Roseville. But because of the air quality that has become unhealthy in the Sacramento area due to the smoke coming from the Camp Fire in Butte County, section officials moved the six title games — three boys and girls each — in Divisions I-III to Tokay’s pool on Friday afternoon.
“We’re prepared; we’re ready to go,” Porter said.
Tokay (21-3), which won a share of the Tri-City Athletic League crown with Lincoln, and Rio Americano (22-8) will play at least one more game after today’s contest. The first-ever CIF NorCal Regional Championships in water polo will take place on Tuesday. The brackets are scheduled to be released on its website — cifstate.org — on Sunday.
“We’re just taking it one game at a time,” Porter said.
To reach today’s title game, Tokay beat Del Oro 7-3 in the semifinals that were also held at Tokay’s pool on Wednesday. Rio Americano (22-8), a member of the Capital Athletic League, posted an 8-7 win over Ponderosa, out of Shingle Springs in El Dorado County, also on Wednesday.
This is the second meeting between Tokay and Rio Americano in two weeks. Rio Americano posted a narrow 9-6 win at the Julian Szmidt Memorial Tournament at Napa Valley College on Oct. 26.
“I’m a big fan of their coach,” said Porter of Rio Americano’s Rachel Ruano, who has 22 players on her roster. “They are a little deeper than we are. Their fundamentals are outstanding. Communication is good, passing is good.”
Today’s title game is one step further than what Tokay had last year. The No. 2 seed in D-II, the Tigers earned a first round bye and beat Del Oro in the second round. Then Bella Vista beat Tokay in the semifinals at Johansen High’s pool in Modesto.
This is the second trip to a section title game in four seasons for Porter. In 2015, he led the Lodi High boys water polo team to the section’s D-I title with a win over Davis Senior High.
After capturing the blue banner, Porter, who has been teaching science classes at Tokay for the last 38 years, was ready to ride off into the sunset.
“I had been on a long road with those boys since eighth grade,” said Porter, referring to the 2015 Lodi boys water polo team. “Our goal was when they graduated, to win sections. You couldn’t ask for anything better than that.”
Enter Iturraran and Macfarlane.
Both four-year starters on the varsity squad, Iturraran and Macfarlane were taking Porter’s AP biology their sophomore year during the 2016-17 school year. After finding out that Haley Ring, who was the 2016 Tokay girls coach, was not going to return for the following season, Iturraran and Macfarlane felt they could talk Porter into coming out of retirement.
Porter said that Iturarran and Macfarlane presented their “emotional appeal” to coach the Tokay girls squad for the 2017 season and this season.
“We begged him to be our coach,” Macfarlane said earlier this week. “We knew if we invested in Porter, he would invest in us.”
Iturraran added, “We’ve been bouncing through different coaches. It’s such a gift to have Porter. It’s hard not to play for him, try out best to play for him.”
During the Tigers’ journey this season, their sparkling record included wins over cross-town rival Lodi and a split decision with Lincoln; the Trojans won the first game but Tokay won the second TCAL meeting.
Iturraran and Macfarlane are two of the Tigers’ four seniors on the team. Sydney Stewart, who had two goals in the team’s win over Del Oro, and Jazmine Main are the other two players.
Juniors on the squad are goalie Alanna Stoops, Mira Patino, Mackenzie Dunn, Hannah Ortiz, Sophie Smith and Thalia Campos. Katie McLain is the lone sophomore, and Sirena Ortiz is the only freshman.
Porter notes that the Tigers approach each game like most people working in their careers — business like. Today’s title game against Rio Americano, which beat Bella Vista of Fair Oaks for the crown last year, will be no different than the previous 24 games.
“We still have business to attend to,” Porter said.
To play today’s section title game in their own pool is sweet for the Tigers.
“Now we can have all of our Tokay supporters,” said Iturraran of hoping for a large turnout of fans for today’s game. “It’s really big for our school. We’re all really hyped up for it.”
From the start of the season in mid-August through today and Tuesday, Porter has been impressed with the improvements of all 12 players on the roster. He notes that Stoops, a junior who had many saves in the Tigers’ win over Del Oro, has made great strides at the box.
“It all worked out to what we have,” Porter said. “It’s been an unbelievable ride to get to this point.”
Contact reporter Mike Bush at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @MBushLodiSports.