COSTA MESA — At first glance, it was the passing and scoring that led to the Newport Heights Elementary players' screaming and hugging that followed the Sharks' 4-2 victory over Carden Hall in the championship game of the Daily Pilot Cup third- and fourth-grade girls' gold division on Sunday.
But deeper consideration might indicate that all that celebratory togetherness provided an explanation behind the cohesiveness on the soccer pitch that spawned the triumph at Jack Hammett Sports Complex.
"We had a lot of good passing and teamwork," Newport Heights Coach Kim Coyne said. "Our girls like each other and they play well together."
Perhaps no game rewards playing well with others more than soccer and the Sharks were the clear beneficiaries all tournament long. Newport Heights outscored the five opponents it conquered, 25-10.
In the final, it was movement, as much as passing that helped key the victory, as the Newport Heights' defense proved catalytic on each of their counterattack goals, including a couple of breakaway tallies by Skylynn Rodriguez that put the match out of reach.
Nicole Laz scored from 30 yards out to open the scoring in the 22nd minute and Ella Hopkins extended the halftime lead with a goal five minutes after intermission.
Laz's score came quickly after Newport Heights gained possession near midfield and went on the attack.
Hopkins' goal occurred when she won a 50-50 sprint with the Carden Hall goalie on a ball about 10 yards in front of the Eagles' net. Hopkins poked the ball to the outside, then averted a collision with the keeper, whose momentum carrier her away from the play. Hopkins then popped the ball into the net for what appeared to be a commanding cushion.
The advantage widened when Rodriguez ran onto a through ball near midfield, widened the gap on the chasing defenders as she walked in on the goalkeeper, and found the net with a driving shot in the 50th minute.
After Sadie Pitchess deftly lobbed a shot over a back-peddling goalkeeper into the top of the net from 20 yards in front to put Carden Hall on the scoreboard, Rodriguez once again used her speed to all but kill any Eagles' comeback hopes.
This time, Rodriguez sprinted from the left flank toward the middle of the field in pursuit of a ball that bounded toward an empty net, as the Eagles had pushed their keeper into the offensive zone in an attempt to increase their offensive chances. Though a Carden Hall defender appeared to have a better angle on the ball, Rodriguez beat her to it and, once again, separated from the defense before pumping a shot into the empty net in the 58th minute.
Carden Hall's Nicole Ryu scored in the final minute to halve the deficit, but it wasn't enough to deny Newport Heights its first title in this division in the 13th edition of the Pilot Cup.
"We got to the final last year, when we lost in a shootout to Kaiser," Coyne said. "Carden Hall was the No. 1 team coming in, so we knew it was going to be a super hard match. The ball bounced our way a couple times and we got lucky. [Carden Hall] is a great team and we really had to fight to come up with a victory. It's a great honor [to win the title] and I'm really excited for the girls."
Among the girls who helped generate that excitement were Laz (four goals in a 6-4 semifinal triumph over Eastbluff earlier Sunday), Lilly Newman and Alison Corr (one goal each in the semifinal).
Hopkins, Ellie Terry, Emma Martin, Delaney Sue Coyne and Riley DeCinces were also standouts for Newport Heights. DeCinces made seven saves in the final.
Carden Hall received strong play Sunday from Ryu, Mia Burns, Gracie Burns, Zoey Gaddis, Pitchess, Jordan Needham, Abby Hampton, Evelyn Taylor and Mia Ferrentino.
The Eagles' roster was rounded out by Riley Foster, Callie Chen, and the injured Gabby Valeriano.
Carden Hall entered the final having outscored opponents, 14-3.
Also contributing for Newport Heights were Willa Rath, Lane McArdell, Camryn More and Caroline Farley.