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High School Boys’ Water Polo Preview: Newport Harbor going on a ring quest

Newport Harbor High’s Ike Love (9) scores against Loyola during the first half in the South Coast To
Ike Love (9), shown shooting on Sept. 22, 2018, is a key returning player for Newport Harbor.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

The Newport Harbor High boys’ water polo team lost just two matches last season.

One of them was the biggest one. The top-seeded Sailors were upset 5-3 by No. 2 Studio City Harvard-Westlake in the CIF Southern Section Division 1 title match.

Newport Harbor got some form of revenge in winning the CIF State Southern California Regional Division I title, defeating the same Wolverines in the final. But there is still no shortage of motivation for the Sailors, who have their junior core returning as seniors, in 2019.

“It definitely still bothers us,” said senior goalkeeper Blake Jackson, bound for USC. “For the most part, all of the juniors that played in the [Division 1 final] who are seniors now, for us it serves as more motivation to take this year super-seriously and go all out. It’s our last year, and now that we know what it’s like losing, we just don’t want it to happen again. If anything, it’s going to help us this season. We’re way hungrier than we were last year and just really want it.”

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Ross Sinclair has preached defense all season for the Newport Harbor High boys’ water polo team, and for good reason.

Newport Harbor (1-0) opened its season Saturday with a 15-12 win at the Bishop’s School of La Jolla. Coach Ross Sinclair’s Sailors are again considered perhaps the Division 1 favorites, or at least co-favorites with Harvard-Westlake, this season. They boast a deep senior lineup that also includes senior center Ike Love, last year’s Daily Pilot Dream Team Player of the Year. Senior utility player Makoto Kenney, bound for UCLA, was Dream Team Player of the Year as well as a sophomore, while defender Reed Stemler is bound for USC and left-hander Tommy Kennedy is headed to Cal.

Love, Stemler and Kennedy helped Team USA win gold at the UANA Junior Pan American Championships in Trinidad & Tobago this summer. Newport Harbor does have key newcomers as well, including junior attackers Sam Allen and Gus Oeding and sophomore attackers Mason Hunt and Gage Verdegaal.

“To be honest, I would say we have the same expectations as last year,” Love said. “Obviously I don’t want to repeat our CIF final defeat. Our ultimate goal is to win that. What’s different this year is that we have a lot of sophomores and freshmen on our team, and I feel like a key to success this year will be to incorporate them into our system.”

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Newport Harbor will also look to defend its Surf League title. Corona del Mar, Huntington Beach and Laguna Beach will try to stop that from happening.

Corona del Mar (5-0) is led by UCLA-bound senior attacker Tanner Pulice, another member of the Junior Pan Ams gold medal-winning group. Senior center Gavin Reed and senior utility player Tyler Harvey are other key players for the Sea Kings, who opened the season by winning the Long Beach Poly tournament.

“We wanted to add some early games, just to kind of get our rhythm and start testing out systems,” CdM coach Kareem Captan said. “I’ve got seniors on this team that have worked four hard years, and this was a good tournament for us to get everyone in the game, get everyone varsity playing time. This tournament was about getting the wheels rolling, momentum … It’s a good start to the season. It’s exactly what we wanted.”

Huntington Beach (1-0) has a rising talent in junior attacker Chase Dodd, another member of the Pan Ams team. Senior Cooper Haddad is another top player for the Oilers, along with senior goalkeeper Jacob Pyle. Coming off a disappointing 1-5 effort in league a year ago, the Oilers appear to be improved and could challenge the Sailors for the title.

Laguna Beach (2-0) welcomes back Ethan Damato as the boys’ head coach. The Breakers had an impressive 8-6 victory at Santa Margarita in their season opener and could be competitive despite losing their two top scorers from a year ago, as Colton Gregory graduated and Logan McCarroll transferred to Mater Dei. Senior goalkeeper Caden Capobianco has earned a reputation as one of the best in the cage in Orange County.

Other local teams have also seen changes. Edison (0-1) finished second in the Wave League a year ago and advanced all the way to the Division 3 quarterfinals, believed to be the first quarterfinal appearance in program history.

The Chargers lost leading scorer Cameron Davidson to graduation and also have a new coach, as Nick Graffis, who has been guiding the Edison girls, takes over for Sean Little on the boys’ team as well. Top players for the Chargers include senior center Ethan Galaz, senior driver Dane Howell and senior defender Luke Burgard.

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“We are a really deep and talented team,” Graffis said. “In my first season, I think the key will be getting some consistency and rhythm. We all need to get on the same page and understand each other’s tendencies further. And a few guys will need to step up and separate themselves as premier water polo players in our league and in our division of CIF. Our goal is to produce one great quarter of water polo at a time and see where that puts us at the end of the year.”

Sage Hill coach Pavle Filipovic said he has a hard-working and well-balanced group of players, including senior center Zach Decker, and junior attackers Matthew Charles and Ian Nguyen. Key new players for the Lightning include junior goalkeeper Jake Lopez and freshman utility player Boden Wagner.

The Lightning play at Costa Mesa on Tuesday, which should be a good challenge for both teams. The Mustangs won their first league title since 2004 last year in the Orange Coast League and advanced to the Division 3 quarterfinals, but lost left-hander Caedmon Fisher, the league MVP, to graduation.

Estancia (1-0) had a young squad last year but still managed to advance to the Division 6 quarterfinals. Junior attacker Logan Richard, who scored seven goals in a season-opening win at Savanna, is a key returner, as is junior goalkeeper Griffin Beth.

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