GOLETA — Call them the comeback kids.
Just also remember to call them champions.
No lead was safe against the Corona del Mar High girls’ water polo team at the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions. On Saturday, Back Bay rival Newport Harbor learned that the hard way.
The Sea Kings stormed back from a 5-2 halftime deficit for a 6-5 overtime win in the tournament’s championship game at Dos Pueblos High. Junior Elise Molnar scored the decisive goal from set with 1 minute, 56 seconds left in the first overtime period, on a pass from senior Carissa Dice.
It completed a remarkable run to the title for CdM (11-5), which defeated three of the four top seeds — Laguna Beach, Dos Pueblos and finally the Sailors — to win its second TOC title in three years.
In the semifinals earlier Saturday, CdM got by Dos Pueblos, 4-1, while Newport Harbor edged Foothill, 6-5.
CdM junior goalie Kate Baldoni, named the tournament MVP, said the dominant win over Dos Pueblos was just what the young Sea Kings needed headed into their game against Newport Harbor. The Sailors (15-2) had won the teams’ previous two meetings this season, including a 9-3 romp in the third-place game of the Holiday Cup on Dec. 29.
“I know all our girls really wanted to win this,” said Baldoni, who made nine saves in the title game and was joined on the all-tournament team by teammate Heather Van Hiel. “After the semifinal game, we all knew we could do it. We all knew we had it in us. We were well-prepared, and all we had to do was go out there and give it everything we’ve got.
“I think in the [Holiday Cup], we kind of lost our mental toughness. In this tournament, after winning the semifinal game, we had all the confidence we needed.”
But CdM, which had come back from a 4-1 halftime deficit to beat Laguna Beach in the quarterfinals Friday, had to pull off a similar feat against Newport Harbor. The Sailors showed their potent offense in the first half, cruising to a 5-2 halftime lead behind goals from five different players: Mimi Bury, Kimmy Morrison, Amanda Simons, Nicolina McCall and Jessica Robinson.
CdM Coach Aaron Chaney, however, still saw the determination in his players.
“When we played Newport the last time, I’m looking at them and kind of getting blank stares and not a lot of feedback,” Chaney said. “This time, I got fire in the eyes, even when we were down.”
There was plenty of determination seen from CdM after halftime. The Sea Kings held their rivals scoreless over the final 21:17, as Newport Harbor didn’t score in the second half or either of the three-minute overtime periods.
“In the third period, we did not attack hard,” said Coach Bill Barnett, whose Sailors had Bury and goalie Morgan Vickers make the all-tournament team. “I think they just thought that things were going to take care of themselves, and they didn’t have to do any more work to get a victory. [It was] an emotional letdown. They thought subconsciously that, ‘Hey, we’ve got it made.’ ”
Instead, CdM kept working. Victoria Kennedy, who scored a game-high three goals from set, connected in the third period to cut the deficit to 5-3. She scored again with 6:30 left in the fourth period to cut it to a single goal.
Then, Van Hiel scored cross-cage with 1:55 to go in regulation, tying the score at 5-5 and setting up Molnar’s game-winner in overtime. The Sailors had a six-on-five in the second overtime period but couldn’t get a shot off, and a later shot went off the right post with 1:20 to play.
“We knew defense was our key,” Baldoni said. “We knew all we had to do was play really good defense, and it would help us so much. Then we could get up on the counter[attack] and score.”
Newport Harbor had one last chance. But a shot with 37 seconds left, after a foul, was taken from inside five meters and therefore disallowed, giving the ball back to CdM.
The Sea Kings were also able to exact revenge on Dos Pueblos in a semifinal Saturday morning, while Newport Harbor survived a late scare to topple Foothill, setting up the Back Bay final.
CdM, which had lost to Dos Pueblos in sudden-death overtime in its season opener on Nov. 30, took control early in the rematch that took place in the Chargers’ pool. CdM junior Kate Berry scored the first goal, from the right side with 5:36 left in the second quarter.
Just before halftime, senior Allison Peotter provided a boost, just like she did in the quarterfinal win over Laguna Beach. This time, she swam behind the defense, took the precise pass from Baldoni and scored a counterattack goal with 41 seconds left before the half.
The teams traded goals midway through the quarter, with Kennedy scoring for CdM and Dos Pueblos freshman phenom Kiley Neushul striking off her own rebound.
But Van Hiel provided the game’s final goal, on a lob from the left with 1:46 left in the third quarter. Van Hiel also played solid defense on Neushul all game, making sure she wouldn’t score five goals like in the teams’ first meeting of the season. The Chargers were left to settle for third place after beating Foothill, 7-5.
“I thought we played really good defense on her,” Chaney said. “I told the girls that we couldn’t guard her one on one. She’s arguably the best high school player [in CIF]. Plus, I thought Heather did a really good job guarding her when it was one on one. [Neushul] has great balance in the water, but so does Heather.”
The Sailors, meanwhile, came out extremely fired up in the second half against Foothill after holding a tenuous 2-1 halftime advantage. Bury drew a Foothill exclusion early in the third quarter, then she scored the power-play goal on Robinson’s pass for a 3-1 lead.
McCall then had an impressive lob goal falling away from set, giving the Sailors a 4-1 lead. Less than a minute later, Kaleigh Gilchrist scored from seven meters, then Erin Reid scored a five-meter penalty shot late in the quarter for a 6-1 lead, that seemed insurmountable.
But the Knights, the defending TOC and CIF Southern Section Division I champs, wouldn’t go away so easily. Foothill scored four consecutive goals in the fourth quarter, the last on a six-on-five goal from Brittany Zwirner with 16 seconds left. But the Sailors were able to run the clock out and survive.
“I think we started using the clock too much,” Robinson said. “We didn’t pass it into set when we could have had really nice shots. I think we still had some opportunities that we didn’t capitalize on.”
It turned out to be the same way the Sailors felt after the championship loss to CdM.
“We’re not very good at sustaining momentum but slowing down,” McCall said. “When we slow down, we just kind of die ... We get ahead and then we don’t know what to do.”
The Sea Kings knew what to do, celebrating wildly after beating their Back Bay rivals.
“I’m not surprised, I’m just very pleased,” Van Hiel said. “We all know that we can play that good defense, and we really showed it. To shut Newport out for a whole half and two overtime periods is a really great accomplishment.”
Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions
Corona del Mar 6,
Newport Harbor 5 (OT)
SCORE BY PERIODS
NH – Simons 1, Bury 1, Morrison 1, McCall 1, Robinson 1. Saves – Vickers 6.
CdM – Kennedy 3, Van Hiel 1, Peotter 1, Molnar 1. Saves – Baldoni 9.
Corona del Mar 4, Dos Pueblos 1
SCORE BY QUARTERS
CdM – Berry 1, Van Hiel 1, Kennedy 1, Peotter 1. Saves – Baldoni 13.
DP – Neushul 1. Saves – S. Hill 13.
Newport Harbor 6, Foothill 5
SCORE BY QUARTERS
F – Zwirner 3, Bustard 1, Klug 1. Saves – Avetoom 3.
NH – Reid 2, Gilchrist 2, Bury 1, McCall 1. Saves – Vickers 5.
MATT SZABO may be reached at (714) 966-4614 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.