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Newport Harbor boys’ water polo bounces back for third at Elite Eight

With 12 CIF Southern Section titles, “elite” is a word that would certainly apply to the Newport Harbor High boys’ water polo team in a historical context.

Newport Harbor hasn’t won one of those since 2007, but this season might be the first in a while that “elite” might again apply to Coach Ross Sinclair’s Sailors.

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They played in the Elite Eight tournament, hosted by Studio City Harvard-Westlake, for the first time this weekend. Newport Harbor, one of three public schools in the field and the only team from Orange County, played against some of the best programs that California had to offer.

Newport Harbor more than held its own, placing third in the eight-team field. The Sailors bounced back from an 11-7 loss to host Harvard-Westlake in the semifinals Saturday – Newport Harbor’s first loss of the season – to beat Los Angeles Loyola 12-8 in the third-place game.

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Harvard-Westlake beat Atherton Sacred Heart Prep, 12-5, in the Elite Eight title match.

Newport Harbor, ranked No. 2 in CIF Southern Section Division 1, is now 9-1 this season. The Sailors had previously rallied to beat Loyola 13-11 in a pool-play game Friday, as 6-foot-5 junior left-hander Tommy Kennedy scored two key goals late.

Doing it again a day later was big against the Cubs, who are No. 3 in Division 1.

“We kind of just played in the moment and did what we had to do to win,” said Sailors senior attacker Makana Sanita, who had two goals, an assist, a field block and a steal in the third-place game. “It helps us out for later, for standings for CIF. We beat them twice, so now we’re 2-0 with them.”

Newport Harbor started strong against Loyola and took an 8-3 halftime lead. That lead never got under three goals in the second half, despite the best efforts of Cubs junior Carson Kranz, who led everyone with five goals.

Senior Jack White scored three goals for the Sailors, while Sanita and juniors Makoto Kenney and Ike Love put in two each. Jonny Rimlinger, Eli Liechty and Kennedy added goals, and junior goalkeeper Blake Jackson made seven saves.

“I was extremely pleased with the way we bounced back,” Sinclair said. “Obviously, coming off a semifinal loss, not a lot of people want to be in a third-place game. We definitely didn’t want to be in it, but you just focus on moving on, staying in the moment. This was an important game. We played them [Friday] and it was a tight game, and we wanted to come out and do it again.”

The Sailors had a bad start in the semifinal against Harvard-Westlake, falling behind 3-0 in the first three-plus minutes of the game. The top-ranked Wolverines, led in scoring by junior George Avakian with three goals, were drawing exclusions and converting them. They scored on their first five power plays, taking a 7-3 halftime lead. The Sailors played Harvard-Westlake even in the second half, but it was too late.

“I think Harvard is the best team,” Sinclair said. “I just think that there are some things they do that are really dynamic, and they’re deep in a lot of positions. Their center defender and their goalie [Nolan Krutonog] caused some problems for us that we have to work out.

“This has been a really good tournament for us. We get to see where we’re at, and I think [the semifinal loss] probably humbles us a bit. It’s always better to lose earlier in the season than later in the season, so hopefully we can learn from this and bounce back.”

Kenney had three goals and four steals against Harvard-Westlake, and Love had a strong game at center with two goals, four drawn ejections and a penalty shot drawn. White and Eli Liechty also scored for the Sailors, and Jackson made six saves.

Newport Harbor has another challenging week next week. The Sailors host Laguna Beach on Monday at 4 p.m. in their Surf League opener, then host the three-day South Coast Tournament that starts Thursday. Out of the eight teams in the Elite Eight tournament, Sinclair said half of them – Harvard-Westlake, Loyola, Westlake Village Oaks Christian and Newport Harbor – are also in the South Coast.

The league opener being Monday night doesn’t give the Sailors a lot of rest, but Sanita, who has taken on a greatly expanded role this season, said he believes his team will be ready.

“These [four Elite Eight semifinalists] are the top four schools in California, so everything is going to be hard,” Sanita said. “We knew that coming into this tournament, every game was going to be a challenge. So we just came out hard every game … We just have to keep working hard and not let up in practice or in the games.”

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