Lunchtime arrived at Corona del Mar High and hundreds of students raced to the parking lot, hoping to avoid the daily bottleneck that engulfs this stretch of Eastbluff Drive as they headed off campus to eat.
Inside Room 272, a dozen of the school's approximately 200 special education students sorted through brown bag lunches or had just returned from the cafeteria, taking advantage of a head start over the rest of the student body.
When Christina Hewko walked into the room, however, their routine was interrupted. Sandwiches were suddenly ignored and smiles began to widen.
Hewko is one of the top players on the Corona del Mar girls' water polo team, which is No. 2 in The Times' rankings. It was only 24 hours before the Sea Kings were to play top-ranked Santa Ana Foothill in one of the biggest games of the season, but Hewko wasn't about to skip her weekly visit.
She spotted a group of seventh- and eighth-grade girls (the high school houses seventh through 12th grades) and plopped down beside them. Others quickly surrounded her and began proudly displaying their Christmas gifts. One showed off her tiny portable radio. Two others lifted shiny Barbie backpacks. Another student, who lives with a nearby foster family when school is in session, shared photos from a recent visit home.
Hewko only recently began visiting Room 272. She was invited by a 12-year-old student she met last year while participating in Best Buddies, an international organization that works to enhance the lives of those with intellectual disabilities by providing opportunities for one-to-one friendships. Hewko says she has already noticed a change in the students' attitude the moment she arrives.
"They get excited and that feels good to me," Hewko said. "I just do it because I want to. [Helping disadvantaged people] is something I want to do in the future."
Hewko's future received a boost in November, when she signed a letter of intent to play water polo at Stanford, the defending NCAA champion.
She was a first-team Southern Section Division IV selection as a freshman and sophomore, and was the division's player of the year after helping the Sea Kings to the division title last season, when she had 85 goals, 60 steals and 34 assists in 32 games.
Last summer, she scored a team-high nine goals for the U.S. national youth team during a five-game tournament in Australia.
Wednesday against Foothill, Hewko scored one goal, had an assist and two steals in the Sea Kings' 6-3 loss.
Although Hewko's scoring average is down this season -- she has 10 goals in eight games but does have a team-high 12 assists and 21 steals -- Coach Aaron Chaney said it's the result of the increased attention she has received. But the opponents' strategy has opened up better perimeter scoring opportunities for teammates Danielle Carlson, Daniela DiGiacomo and Jessica Harkins. Carlson leads the Sea Kings with 25 goals.
"The defenses have been dropping on us a lot more," said teammate Brittany Bowlus, another two-meter player who signed with UCLA. "We haven't had a chance to score as much, so we've been relying on outside shots. Everyone is contributing. We have more goals coming from elsewhere."
Hewko's contributions to the team are not limited to the pool.
She's a ringleader in the pregame routine, which begins with players forming a dance circle in the team room. With their favorite songs blasting from speakers, each player takes a turn dancing in the middle.
After some inspirational messages are shared, the mood grows more serious when the team enters the pool. Not a word is said during pregame warmups.
"It's sort of an intimidation factor," Bowlus said.
A hearty portion of the team bonding also takes place during team dinners the night before each game. The freshmen bring the main course, the sophomores the salad, the juniors the dessert and the seniors are responsible for the drinks. Hewko said the meals often resemble an eating contest.
"We probably overeat," she said. "It's not a pretty sight. Even Chaney avoids coming."
Hewko, a vegetarian, was empty-handed when she arrived for lunch Tuesday in Room 272, only a few strides from the school's 50-meter pool.
Christal, the shy, sandy blonde-haired girl who met Hewko last year through Big Buddies, eagerly anticipated her arrival.
"We meet each other at school on Tuesday," said Christal, who will turn 13 next month. "We usually get lunch and we talk a lot. We talk about friends."
Hewko began spending one lunch per week with Christal last year, usually sitting somewhere outside on campus. Christal invited her into the classroom for the first time last month, and Hewko quickly made a roomful of new friends.
Christal's teacher, Kathy Murrell, said visits from students such as Hewko help give her students a better sense of belonging.
"You can see it in their response to other students," Murrell said. "They feel like they actually have friends here."