The Laguna Beach High girls’ water polo team is going for its fourth CIF Southern Section Division 1 title in five seasons, and that’s rarefied air.
The only other team that has done it since girls’ water polo became a CIF sport in 1998 is Foothill. The Knights won four straight Division 1 titles from 2000-2003.
Nowadays, there is more talent than ever, and the talent is more spread out across a handful of teams in Division 1. The Breakers were undefeated CIF champions in 2016-17, but they also graduated their top three scorers from last season in Daily Pilot Dream Team Player of the Year Aria Fischer (Stanford), Bella Baldridge (Stanford) and Claire Sonne (Cal).
Still, there is reason to believe Laguna Beach will again be in the hunt. Seven members of this year’s senior class have committed to or signed with NCAA programs, including goalie Thea Walsh (Stanford), Evan Tingler (Harvard), Isabel Riches (Brown), Alana Evans (Princeton), Sophia Lucas (USC), Kyla Whitelock (Fresno State) and Danielle Borelli (McKendree University in Lebanon, Ill.). Laguna Beach coach Ethan Damato said Alex Peros would eventually be the eighth senior to sign.
“It’s probably the deepest team I’ve ever had, in terms of talent from top to bottom,” Damato said. “We talked about it last year after the season was over. We asked the girls what they expected it to be like this year, and I think we all felt pretty confident that we could be back in the hunt, regardless of what we lost and what everybody else said.”
Walsh returns as one of the top goalies in CIF, if not the best. Last year, she made a Laguna Beach single-season record 298 saves. Lucas and Tingler are three-year varsity starters, while Peros, Riches and Evans all played a lot last year as well.
“We don’t have the Aria Fischer, and very few people do ever,” Damato said. “But people forget how good Thea Walsh is, or maybe they just forget how important it is to have a great goalie. I think she can be as dominating from the cage this year as anybody in high school at that position.”
The Breakers also have young talent. Freshmen Nicole Struss, Molly Renner and Rachel Carver should all see playing time. The three players were all on the Laguna Beach 14-and-under team that won gold last summer at the USA Water Polo Junior Olympics, with Struss earning tournament MVP honors.
Laguna Beach (3-0) passed its first significant test of the season Wednesday, when it defeated Goleta Dos Pueblos 7-5 in a rematch of last year’s Division 1 semifinals. Locally, there are other teams like Corona del Mar, Newport Harbor and Huntington Beach that the Southern Section listed as preseason teams to watch in Divisions 1 and 2. They are also looking to earn a spot in the eight-team Division 1 playoffs.
Corona del Mar, led by first-year coach Justin Papa, has good senior leadership with players like Chloe Harbilas, bound for Stanford, and three-year starter in goal Erin Tharp (USC). Seniors Riley Sidebotham (San Diego State) and Parker Hoffman are also experienced players.
Juniors Sophie Wallace and Ella Abbott are starting attackers, but CdM also has young talent that will contribute, with sophomore Megan Peterson and freshman Grace Myers also starting.
“The most exciting thing to me this year is our depth,” said Papa, whose team starts the season with a good test Dec. 15 at Foothill before hosting the Battle of the Bay game against Newport Harbor on Dec. 22.
Newport Harbor coach Brian Melstrom said this is the most experienced and quickest team that he’s had in his three years in charge. The goal is to not only make the Division 1 playoffs but also win the Sunset League title, after finishing second to Los Alamitos last year.
UC Irvine-bound senior utility player Jessica Lynch leads the charge for the Sailors, who also have three other returning starters in senior attacker Kaela Whelan, senior center Sarah Barker and junior defender Karis Couch.
Huntington Beach graduated a lot from last year’s team that narrowly finished third in the Sunset League after close losses to Los Alamitos and Newport Harbor in league.
Five seniors went to play in college, including leading scorer Kali Hyham at Bucknell. But Hyham’s younger sister Marina, a Marist College signee, returns for her fourth year starting in goal. The other senior is center Maddie Bockman, bound for UC San Diego, while junior attacker Nicca Falah and junior defender Courtney Heydorff are other key pieces.
“We’ve beaten both [Newport Harbor and Los Alamitos] out of league in the last two years, but we’ve never beaten them in league,” Oilers coach Mark Canner said. “Getting over Newport is a big deal this year. I think Los Al is the favorite among those three teams, but I think we have a shot at both of them.”
The other team listed as a team to watch is Los Amigos in Division 7. The Lobos, who lost in the first round of the playoffs last year, have been off to a fast start by winning seven of their first eight games.
Both Costa Mesa schools advanced to the CIF quarterfinals last year, Costa Mesa in Division 6 and Estancia in Division 7. But Mustangs coach Dustin Serrano and Eagles coach Mitch White both report that their teams are young and relatively inexperienced this season.
Costa Mesa does bring back two of its leading goal scorers from last year, junior Sofia Rice and senior Kaylie Tickenoff. Serrano said that sophomore center Taiuta Uiagalelei and sophomore Sey Currie will also be key players this season.
“[Uiagalelei] is a dominant presence,” Serrano said. “She’s a pretty big lefty, handles the ball. I see big things happening for her this season, being an offensive presence in Division 5.”
Estancia won its first two CIF playoff games in program history last year, but graduated a lot. Senior Annie Mitchell, a left-hander who should also play some goalie, should play a big role. So will sophomores Sydni White and Mackenzie McIntyre, as well as freshman Cassie Corrigan.