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MURRIETA — It was a another nail-biting finish for the Riverside Poly boys water polo team.

Rafael Martinez’s back-handed goal with 2:35 remaining on the clock proved the difference Wednesday night, as the Bears held on for a 9-8 victory over Murrieta Valley in a nonleague between two of the top Inland programs.

This was the second consecutive match Riverside Poly (3-0) squandered a comfortable lead and escaped at the finish. Friday, the Bears secured a 9-8 win after leading Los Osos 7-1 at halftime. Poly took an early 5-1 lead in Wednesday’s match.

“The kids don’t want to here this, but we need to work on our endurance,” Poly coach Bill Grisham said about the second-half struggles. “It’s only our third match of the season. I need another month to get that conditioning up to where it needs to be.”

Murrieta Valley (2-1) appeared to have scored an equalizer in the closing seconds of the match, but Luke Requeo’s shot to the top right corner of the cage was waved off because a teammate had clearly drifted inside the 2-meter marker without the ball.

“Our kids showed character to come back from a pretty big deficit and have a chance,” Nighthawks coach Bryan Lynton said.

Miguel Buan and Martinez each scored a pair of goals in the opening six minutes of the match to stake Poly to that quick 5-1 lead. The Bears scored on each of their first four power-play opportunities to gain the early advantage.

“We came out hot and showed how explosive we can be on offense,” Grisham said. “Then we started to make silly mistakes.”

Murrieta Valley held Poly scoreless the final 6 1/2 minutes of the first half and got back within 6-4 at halftime. Titus Elliott scored a match-high four goals to fuel the comeback, and the Nighthawks leveled the score at 8 when Mateo Rivas, a call-up from the junior varsity team, scored his lone goal with 50 seconds remaining in the third quarter.

Both teams dug their heels in defensively during the fourth period, leading to wild shots and a slew of turnovers.

Martinez broke the deadlock and secured his hat trick when he rifled the backhand shot into the top corner of the cage.

“They were giving me that 1-2 side. I knew if I could just find the corner it was going in,” Martinez said of his game-winning goal.

Poly goalkeeper Leo Davis blocked a shot moments later but nearly knocked the ball into the cage for a tying goal.

“That was wild. I’m glad I got to it in time,” said Davis, who finished with 11 saves, four of those coming in the final quarter.

After a rough third period, Poly’s defense finished strong and held Murrieta Valley scoreless over the final 7-plus minutes.

“It’s a young team, and we’re still finding our rhythm,” Martinez said. “We just need to string together four 7-minutes quarters.”

Murrieta Valley goalkeeper Aidan Wilkins finished the match with nine saves.

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