Ross Sinclair has preached defense all season for the Newport Harbor High boys’ water polo team, and for good reason.
Defense is what former longtime coaches Bill Barnett and Jason Lynch preached, too. It led the Sailors to 12 CIF Southern Section titles, the last one coming in 2007.
Sinclair said he believed the top-seeded Sailors played good enough defense to win No. 13, Saturday’s CIF Southern Section Division 1 title match at Irvine’s Woollett Aquatics Center. They held No. 2 Studio City Harvard-Westlake to just five goals, matching the Wolverines’ lowest output of the season.
What the Sailors couldn’t have predicted was that the Wolverines’ defensive effort would actually be even more impressive.
Harvard-Westlake shut down Newport Harbor, earning its third Division 1 title with a somewhat stunning 5-3 upset victory.
The Sailors (29-2), who had a 21-match winning streak snapped, did not score in the first half of the title match. They couldn’t find the net on five first-half power-play opportunities, including three successive chances late in the first quarter.
Newport Harbor finished three for 10 on the power play. As Harvard-Westlake coach Brian Flacks pointed out, the Sailors scored no “natural” goals. Credit the defense of the Wolverines (25-5), led by junior goalkeeper Nolan Krutonog and his 10 saves.
“I was pretty upset with our defense all season,” said Flacks, whose team gave up 13 goals to the Sailors in the South Coast Tournament final on Sept. 22 and 14 goals in a showcase match on Oct. 6, both losses. “I thought our defense was relatively poor, and I thought during playoffs, we’ve done a nice job cleaning it up. I think we did a nice job of pressing them and then falling back into zones late, trying to get pressure on their really talented, athletic shooters. We played smart defensively, and didn‘t give up anything easy.”
Junior center Ike Love, who led the Sailors with two goals, did give Newport Harbor plenty of opportunities. He drew six exclusions in the final, and the Sailors fouled out Harvard-Westlake’s George Avakian and Alexandru Bucur. But it just seemed like a lid was on the goal.
Newport Harbor trailed 2-0 at halftime and was easily held to a season-low goal total. The previous low was six, and it also came against Harvard-Westlake in the Sailors’ only other loss this season, an 11-6 setback in the Elite Eight tournament semifinals on Sept. 15.
“I don’t think we played particularly bad,” Sinclair said. “I think we had a lot of good looks, we just couldn’t score. Credit to them, they made it really difficult for us and their goalie played really well. I just think shots didn’t fall today. We got a lot of good looks that we’ve scored every other time.”
Sailors junior goalkeeper Blake Jackson kept his team in the match with a season-high 17 saves, seven of those coming in the fourth quarter. But Newport Harbor played from behind all match long.
Junior defender Nico Tierney scored a team-best two goals for Harvard-Westlake, which had an answer every time Newport Harbor tried to take momentum. Sailors junior Makoto Kenney scored a lob goal on six-on-five with 1:46 left in the third quarter, cutting his team’s deficit to 4-2. But Wolverines junior Ethan Shipman answered with a cross-cage strike with five seconds remaining in the quarter.
Love scored his second goal, assisted by junior left-hander Tommy Kennedy, to bring Newport Harbor within 5-3 with 6:01 remaining in the fourth. Newport Harbor could not get closer, squandering two more power-play opportunities.
Flacks was diplomatic after the match.
“What they just did in-season, hopefully everyone acknowledges how amazing that is,” he said. “To have two losses in a season at this level, to play in Division 1 and to play the schedule those guys play, is pretty amazing.”
Both losses came at the hands of Harvard-Westlake. The second one was the one that hurt the most.
“I think we’ve had an incredible season,” Love said. “There’s nothing I would change with that. I just think all of us wish we could get the shots back that we took in this game. Unfortunately, we lost the biggest game.”