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To understand how the Cardinal Newman and Terra Linda boys water polo teams earned spots in the North Coast Section Division 2 championship game for the first time in each school’s history, you have to start with the 2006 and 2007 men’s water polo teams at Santa Rosa Junior College.

That’s when the Cardinals coach Matt McDowell and Trojans coach Geoff Peters played together as Bear Cubs teammates and were starters on teams that won the 2006 NorCal title and followed it up with the 2007 Big 8 title and a third-place finish in the state under then-coach James Graham.

McDowell said their bond began when Peters would assist the future Newman coach as he was playing defense at SRJC.

“Our relationship was built because he was one of the guys who helped out when I needed it, and he ended up leading the team in steals because of some of the ways we worked together,” McDowell said of Peters.

The coaches’ bond makes the meaning of Monday’s championship game that much greater.

“It’s interesting because we know how each other coaches … and it means more because of our friendship,” Peters said.

Graham, who has since moved on to be the men’s and women’s water polo coach for the University of the Pacific in Stockton, gets a lot of credit from his former players turned coaches for helping them shape their teams into more than just squads of talented players.

“(Graham) instilled things that we are really passionate about,” McDowell said. “Not just turning these boys into good water polo players, but turning them into good men. Which is really what he showed us.

“We both moved on and played after that, but we never had coaches quite as good as him.”

The shared passion of both McDowell and Peters for the sport is what Graham feels led to the success of their teams at SRJC back then and the duo’s high school teams today.

“I really think that a lot of what players learn is what they put into the game and how hard they work — and how much they absorb from their coaches and teammates,” Graham said. “What we preach is being passionate about what you do and giving it everything you have and working all out for a dream — those are things that those teams were all about and what we were trying to accomplish.

“Both of them understood what they could bring. Teamwork makes the dream work.”

And the dream is very real for Newman. The Cardinals (23-3) played Terra Linda (17-7) twice this season, with Newman losing an early-season matchup 11-9 and winning the rematch 6-3 in September.

So you could call the title game a 2018 tiebreaker between the two teams.

“When our teams play each other, it’s a rivalry, and it’s going to be a good game,” said Bennett Stafford, the Cardinals’ leading goal scorer with 122 goals through Nov. 3.

Newman’s team returned only two seniors — team captain Nico Glasbrener and Justin Brown — but youth clearly hasn’t been an issue, as McDowell said the team has bought into the goal of a section title.

Brown acknowledged the Cardinals don’t substitute much each game, but said the starters have focused on staying in shape. The senior, who plays the hole set position and coordinates the offense, said a title win would be a major turning point for Newman’s aquatic program.

“It would show what can come out of even such a small program,” he said. “I think that would mean more players join the program, because we do struggle with that from year to year.”

Glasbrener is the anchor at the cage, or net, for the Cardinals, with 254 saves. He said the intensity is high for Monday’s title game and word has spread around the campus that the team stands to make school history. Athletes across different sports have approached him, showing interest in the team’s results.

“It’s extremely exciting,” Glasbrener said. “It’s incredible to think you’d be making history at your own school. Having a legacy, coming back with your friends when you’re older down the line and being like, ‘That’s the first time Newman ever brought back a banner for water polo and I was on that team. I was there at the championship game.’ It’s something you can tell your kids, grandkids, friends, family; it’s just a great experience.”

The championship contest was originally scheduled for Saturday, but pushed back to Monday due to poor air quality from smoke drifting from the Camp fire in Butte County. The game will now tip off at noon at Acalanes High in Lafayette.

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