Defense wins championships. The Laguna Beach High girls’ water polo team wouldn’t have it any other way.
A casual observer of Wednesday night’s CIF Southern Section Division II semifinal against Agoura would have seen a high-scoring game, the 9-8 final score in favor of the Breakers.
Look closer, and it was Laguna’s shut-down defense that gave the defending champions a chance. Agoura scored just once in the fourth quarter at Irvine High, and was shut out in the final 4:31 of the game.
A trio of juniors and a well-rounded sophomore lead Laguna’s defense. Junior goalie Etianne Manetta anchors the defense, as does junior set defender Jessica Shusko. Sophomore Melena Masson also excels at defense and junior Jessie Holechek, the team’s leading scorer, stepped in big-time when Masson was recovering from mononucleosis earlier this season.
“I think this year we’re more focused on team defense than we have been in the past," Holechek said.
“We play more as a team, like helping off each other. For us, defense has always come first. I think Laguna as a whole has always had a pretty strong defensive program."
All four players made big waves three years ago when they helped Laguna junior polo win the Speedo Cup in November 2006, a team that also included current Breakers Lida DeGroote, Yoshi Andersen, Kaitlin Waidley and Riley Duncan. That tournament win in St. Louis included a big quarterfinal win against Santa Barbara, a first for this group of Laguna girls.
Now, they are just one win away from helping Laguna to its second straight Division II title.
Shusko embodies the defense’s toughness. She hasn’t let guarding the other team’s best two-meter player phase her, or even bruised ribs during the SoCal Championships. In fact, she gets angry at Coach Ethan Damato when he tries to change her role.
“I’m really, really competitive," said Shusko, who plays club polo with El Toro-based SET, along with Masson.
“I don’t like to lose and I don’t like to make other people do my job. If it’s my job to guard that person, then I’m going to finish the game guarding my person."
She is also a bit feisty. She was the one who said, after the 10-5 nonleague victory over Palos Verdes earlier this year, that she wasn’t surprised at all that the Breakers won by such a big margin.
“I’m not talking smack or whatever," Shusko said. “I have a lot of confidence in my team and I know what we can do."
Manetta, meanwhile, was cast into the starting goalie spot early last year, “by default," as she said. Senior Sarah Zuziak injured her thumb in a scrimmage. By the end of the year, Zuziak was back, but Manetta definitely wasn’t giving her spot up. Over the course of the year, she earned the trust of the other seniors on the team.
“I think there was a little bit of tension at the beginning," Manetta said. “As the season went on, they were not happy that she broke her thumb, but happy that I was in goal."
She works extensively with assistant coach Lina Moore, a former Breakers goalie who graduated in 2003 and also played at UC Davis. This year, Manetta has also been more confident in the cage.
“It’s more of a fun thing than an anxiety attack," Manetta said. “That, I would say, is conducive to playing well, for the most part."
Masson missed much of the early part of the season with her illness. It was something she actually played through last summer before it was diagnosed.
“I still get tired once in a while, but I try it ignore it and keep on going," Masson said. “During last summer, I didn’t go out anywhere. I just slept. I would sleep for 10 hours during the day."
But her return has been huge. Damato called her probably the most well-rounded player on the whole team. Last year, she contributed two big goals in the Division II final win against Montebello.
She has also had her standout games this year, like when she made several highlight-reel steals in a one-goal loss to Los Alamitos.
Yet, when Masson wasn’t there earlier this year, it was Holechek, the team’s leading scorer, who stepped in. She said she wasn’t all that used to playing defense in that way, but it has added a new aspect to her game.
She still is a big contributor to the Breakers’ “drop" defense.
“It was a new thing to me," said Holechek, who plays club for Huntington Beach Water Polo Club. “But I think I adapted pretty well. I think I’ve gotten better at it as the season goes on, and I trust myself more with defense."
The results have shown for the whole team.
“They communicate really well in the water," said Damato of his team, many of whom have been playing together for nearly a decade. “They know each other so well, so they enjoy helping each other in the water. I really feel like they have fun on the defensive end."