Jake Tsotadze and Luke Bachler suffered through the worst three months of their lives together when they were both rehabbing back problems while their Sacred Heart Prep boys water polo teammates were already a month into their season.
As it turned out, they were the missing pieces of a team Gators coach Brian Kreutzkamp thinks had a chance to make its mark at a national level.
All they had to do Saturday, the final day of the North vs. South Challenge, was beat the two teams which handed Sacred Heart Prep its two losses this season.
Sacred Heart Prep (19-2) beat Harvard Westlake 8-7 in the semifinal and then downed Mater Dei 6-5 in the championship game in front of a raucous crowd (at least in the student section) that crammed into every nook and cranny at Dunlevie Aquatic Center.
"Playing eight quarters with Harvard Westlake and Mater Dei with a short rest period was the guttiest effort I've seen as a coach," Kreutzkamp said. "The energy was awesome."
Mater Dei (14-2) beat SHP in the semifinal of the South Coast Invitational. Harvard Westlake (17-4) beat the Gators on Thursday in a non-league game just prior to the Challenge.
SHP has won two of the three toughest water polo tournaments in the nation, staking a claim as one of the top high school teams in the nation.
Tsotadze and Bachler, who also missed playing in the National Junior Olympics with the Stanford club team in July, weren't available for the South Coast tournament. They made their season debut against Mitty in late September.
"That was the slowest I've ever been in four years," Bachler said of the game. "My back was hurting but I had to get through it. Rehabbing with Jake was the only way I could get through it."
How important was it for Sacred Heart Prep to get Tsotadze and Bachler back in the lineup? Tsotadze scored the game winner against Mater Dei with 3:31 remaining to play. He also scored the game-winner in the championship match at last weekend's S&R Elite 12 Invitational.
When Bachler is in the water, his defensive job is to neutralize the opponent's top offensive player. He also scored the go-ahead goal in the win over Harvard Westlake.
Sacred Heart Prep would have been an elite team without them. As Kreutzkamp said, though, "we need everybody."
Sacred Heart Prep won't be facing the same caliber of opponent the rest of the way but will still be vigilant because teams in the area are still ranked among the top 10 in Northern California, including Menlo School.
"We'll take a little rest and then start the playoff run," Kreutzkamp said. "We may be set up for a huge fail but the seniors will want to finish off the season strong."
SHP won the tournament for just the second time since its beginning in 2006. Mater Dei is a five-time champion. It's also just the fourth time a team from Northern California won the title.
Sacred Heart Prep has two regular-season games remaining. The Gators go to Valley Christian on Wednesday in their WCAL finale and then play at home against Newport Harbor on Thursday in a rematch of the S&R Elite 12 title match.
Against Mater Dei, Will Swart scored three consecutive goals to help SHP take a 5-2 lead into halftime. The Monarchs responded with three straight goals to pull even early in the fourth period.
Against Harvard Westlake, the teams traded goals until goalie Griff Price launched a shot that found the net midway through the fourth period, giving SHP an 8-6 lead.
Menlo finished 10th in the tournament, beating Oaks Christian 10-8 in its first game of the day after failing behind 5-0 in the first five minutes. The Knights (13-9) went on a 10-3 run the rest of the way.
Cormac Mulloy came in for the second half and recorded 13 saves, allowing Menlo the chance to get back into it.
"This is the kind of game that just demonstrates the tremendous character of this team," Menlo coach Jack Bowen said. "Being down five early to a program like Oaks Christian, these guys didn't once give up or let down. If anything, I saw some great leadership from our senior co-captains Greg Hilderbrand, Jack Murad, and Dakin Muhlner, and the team really rallied together."
Menlo lost to Campolindo 15-12 in its last game. Tommy Kiesling led the team with six goals. Murad added four and Hilderbrand scored twice.
Gunn lost its finale 16-5 to Santa Mararita. Ron Zamir scored three goals in the Titans 17-11 setback to Miramonte earlier in the day. Nadav Efrat and Cole Vale each added two goals.