The Cardinal Newman boys water polo team got as far as Manteca when the call came in.

The caller broke the news: The NorCal tournament, slated to start Friday just hours after the final match of the North Coast Section tournament, was canceled because of poor air quality in Clovis.

“They are just let down,” coach Matt McDowell said of his players. “They just wanted to play.”

It was an emotional 24 hours for the Cardinals.

After a number of postponements, Cardinal Newman faced Terra Linda in the Division 2 section championship in Berkeley Thursday night.

The team prevailed 9-8 to win the school’s first section pennant in water polo.

But that win meant a drive back north, going home to pack and meeting at the bus at 5:30 a.m. Friday for a trip south to take on Archbishop Mitty of San Jose in round one of the NorCal Division III tournament.

“The boys were like, ‘Let’s go, coach!’ Then they fell asleep,” McDowell said of the pre-dawn departure.

Three hours later, he had to wake everyone in different vans to break the news.

“My boys were pretty upset,” he said. “They were excited to play more water polo after last night.”

The Cardinals had amassed a 24-3 overall record and went 11-1 in league to share the Vine Valley Athletic League title with Vintage.

Cardinal Newman’s dean of student life, Graham Rutherford, said the decision was a disappointment for a team that was still making strides.

“They were looking forward to that competition. They were peaking at the right time,” Rutherford said. “They wanted that level of achievement. They earned it.”

The news was met with mixed emotion Friday morning, McDowell said.

“Everyone understands what’s going on environmentally,” he said. “It’s just too bad that more wasn’t planned with these indoor pools.”

The NCS championship was moved several times before being held at Berkeley High’s indoor pool Thursday.

McDowell said that by the time the team vans rolled back into Santa Rosa, the disappointment was eased by pride in the section championship.

“We are really excited for what we did,” he said. “Nothing can take that away. It’s history no matter what happens.

“I love those boys,” he said. “It was a great season.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”