Flipping a coin might be easier than picking who would win a game between the Laguna Beach Water Polo club and Newport this year.
The 12-and-under girls’ water polo teams have developed quite a friendly rivalry. And, when Newport beat Laguna midway through the S&R; Sport Junior Olympics, it made the path to a gold medal that much tougher for the locals.
In the biggest game of the club season, though, it was the Laguna girls’ time to shine.
Fourth-seeded Laguna put it all together Sunday, defeating its top-seeded rivals up the coast, 4-2, in the Platinum Division championship match at Stanford University.
Laguna’s 14-and-under girls placed sixth, and the 10-and-under co-ed team a strong second.
“We’ve gone back and forth with Newport,” said Laguna Coach Chad Beeler, one of three coaches of the 12-and-under girls along with Scott Baldridge and Erich Fisher. “They’ve beaten us more times than we’ve beaten them. Newport beat us earlier in the JO tournament and we were a little worried, but we were able to come out on top and beat them.
“Newport’s pretty stacked, but I guess we’re pretty stacked, too.”
It hasn’t always been that way. Beeler described how the team is young, not just in age but in water polo experience.
Other than veterans such as lefty attacker/hole set Bella Baldridge, Daniela Lucidi and hole set Makenzie Fischer, many of the girls have been playing water polo for a matter of months, not years.
Yet, they came together. Beeler talked with pride about the progress than Haley Evans, Maia Borisoff, Brigid Burnes and Aria Fischer have made in just a couple of months.
Then, there was Holly Parker, who stepped up as goalie when the games mattered most.
Katie Stanton, a multi-sport star who also excels in softball, dedicated herself and developed into a great driver. Then there was tournament MVP Sandonica Mwangi, who has been playing with the 14-and-unders for most of the summer although she just turned 12.
“It was amazing to see the improvement,” Stanton said. “It’s really surprising, but really exciting. We believed we can do it. Some of the girls had never heard about water polo ... [but] my team was amazing and everyone worked so hard. My coaches were amazing.”
Make no mistake, the 12-and-under Laguna girls knew they were good. Playing in the Aliso Viejo summer league, they beat high school frosh-soph teams including Aliso Viejo, Woodbridge and Tesoro.
“Every time we’d get there, the other team would look at us, point and laugh,” Scott Baldridge said. “Then, we’d beat them 8-0.”
After losing to Newport earlier in the Junior Olympics tournament over the weekend, Laguna beat San Diego Shores, then Los Alamitos, 6-5, in a semifinal to advance to the final. Mwangi (two goals), Stanton and Makenzie Fischer all scored against Newport in the final.
Laguna had also topped Newport in May at the San Diego County Cup, considered the second-most prestigious of the year behind Junior Olympics.
“We had a lot of fun,” Bella Baldridge said. “[After losing to Newport at JOs] we were saying, ‘They can win the easy one, but we can win the hard one, the big one.’ They had this entire army, and we had two subs. It was amazing. A little part of me is like, ‘Wow, we actually made it.’ ”
Beeler maybe felt the same way.
“We’ve been used to that all year,” he said. “When we started this year, we weren’t that good ... We recruited soccer players, softball players, and put together a good, competitive team. We want those girls and we’ll turn them into real water polo players.
“The girls were having so much fun. It’s unbelievable, the excitement. They’re at Stanford with hundreds of people cheering them on. These girls got a great experience out of it.”
The Laguna 14-and-under girls, featuring five incoming freshmen at Laguna Beach High, placed sixth. The incoming Breakers include Alia Manetta, Mackenzie Baldridge, Lexi Del Toro, Kate Magnuson and Sydney Saxe.
Laguna lost to eventual second-place finisher Commerce by just one goal.
“We were sad about it because we knew we could have done a lot better,” said Baldridge, an attacker. “[But] we’re really excited to go to Laguna Beach High.”
The 10-and-under co-ed team advanced to the final of the Platinum Division undefeated before falling to Foothill, 4-2, on July 28.
Team members included Marccon Salib, Peter Weiland, Angelique Begay, Ayrton Svenson, Sophia Lucas, Aria Fischer, Elias Payne, Sebastian Jacobs and Billy Renner. Chad and Albie Beeler coached the team.
“It was really hard,” Svenson said. “But, it’s exciting scoring goals.”