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Laguna Beach girls' water polo outlasts Corona del Mar

The top girls’ water polo team in the CIF Southern Section lost one of the top field players in the section early in Wednesday’s nonleague game against Corona del Mar.

Laguna Beach coach Ethan Damato said that USC-bound senior Sophia Lucas, the Breakers’ leading scorer, left the game in the first quarter with a strained neck. She did not return.

The game turned into a defensive battle. Ultimately, as can happen for a championship-level team, Lucas’ absence allowed for someone else to step up and score goals.

That person was freshman Nicole Struss.

Struss beat a double team to score with 3:40 remaining in the contest, the eventual game-winning goal as Laguna Beach avoided the upset and claimed a 3-2 victory over CdM at the Breakers’ pool.

The win kept intact a 44-game winning streak since the beginning of last season for Laguna Beach (13-0), the top-ranked team in CIF Southern Section Division 1 and 2. No. 4-ranked CdM fell to 8-2.

“It was definitely a hard win, but I think throughout the game everybody just kept fighting, through the ups and downs,” Struss said. “Everybody just tried to keep each other positive, keep pushing and working.”

Lucas and senior Alex Peros also scored for Laguna Beach, which won despite its lowest goal total since a 4-3 setback against Foothill in the 2016 Division 1 semifinals — the Breakers’ last loss. The goalies for each team put on a show, with Stanford-bound Laguna Beach senior Thea Walsh making 12 saves and USC-bound CdM goalie Erin Tharp tallying 10 saves.

It looked like we were definitely out of rhythm. Obviously, losing Sophia hurts us. She does a lot for us offensively.

Laguna Beach coach Ethan Damato

“Both goalies were very good, so that’s a part of [the low-goal total],” Damato said. “They played physical and made it tough for us to do what we wanted to do. I thought there should have been more goals on both sides. I’m not quite sure if that’s bad offense or good defense. I think the tape will tell more.

“It looked like we were definitely out of rhythm. Obviously, losing Sophia hurts us. She does a lot for us offensively.”

Damato said he was hopeful that Lucas would be able to play Saturday, when the Breakers visit No. 3 Mater Dei for another key nonleague game at 11 a.m.

Senior Isabel Riches had three steals for Laguna Beach and senior Evan Tingler added two. The Breakers led 2-1 after the first quarter, and neither team would score again until the fourth.

Stanford-bound CdM senior Chloe Harbilas momentarily tied the score at 2-2 midway through the fourth quarter, connecting on an outside shot off a foul with 4:06 remaining. But on the Breakers’ next possession, Struss had an answer from the right side of the pool. With two CdM players in the vicinity and Tharp charging at her out of the goal, Struss still was able to score into the open net.

Harbilas, junior Sophie Wallace and freshman Grace Myers each had three steals for CdM, which had chances in the final two minutes. But Walsh made a save on Myers in transition with a minute to go.

Harbilas’ steal on the other end set up one last chance for CdM. Following a timeout, though, a Sea Kings player was called for a push-off against Peros with 27 seconds left. The offensive foul gave the ball back to Laguna Beach, which was able to run the clock out from there.

CdM coach Justin Papa came away from the game encouraged with his team’s defense.

“Our big message to the girls was that win or lose, we get better with this game,” said Papa, whose team returns to action with a home Pacific Coast League game against Irvine on Thursday at 3:15 p.m. “We had a chance to measure ourselves against one of the best teams, if not the best team, in the division. Let’s come out and see where we’re really at. I thought we did that. I thought we left it all in the pool. They put their heart, soul, everything into that game.”

matthew.szabo@latimes.com

Twitter: @mjszabo

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