The Newport Harbor High boys’ water polo team didn’t know until Wednesday morning where its CIF Southern Section Division 1 playoff opener would be played.
The Sailors’ pool has been down in recent days, and the match against Westlake Village Oaks Christian was supposed to be moved to Corona del Mar High.
“The motor blew up or something, I don’t know,” Sailors coach Ross Sinclair said. “We’ve been not here. We’ve been getting not as much pool time as I would like. [Tuesday] we were able to go after school and get a proper practice in, but up until then, we didn’t really have much.”
The Newport Harbor pool was cleared to hold the match after all. The Sailors got a big-time performance at home from Eli Liechty, and Sinclair never has to worry about Liechty’s motor not running.
The junior center scored five goals, as No. 2-seeded Newport Harbor opened the playoffs with an 11-8 victory over Oaks Christian.
The Sailors (25-3) advance to play No. 3 Los Angeles Loyola (24-5) in the semifinals on Wednesday at Irvine’s Woollett Aquatics Center at a time to be determined. Loyola beat Santa Margarita 9-6 in another first-round match Thursday.
Newport Harbor has played Loyola one previous time this season, earning a 10-9 win in the Elite Eight tournament on Oct. 4.
“We did a lot of prep, film and classroom stuff,” Sinclair said of getting prepared for Oaks Christian. “There were some jitters and a little slow reaction to things tonight, and we’ve been out of the pool for a little while so that was expected. But I thought we did a good job of staying composed.”
“I thought [senior center] Ike [Love] and Eli did a really nice job of holding position. We made a little adjustment at the end of the first quarter, and they did a good job of making that adjustment and it worked out.”
Love, who scored twice, tweeted after the match that he has committed to Stanford University. He was last year’s Daily Pilot Boys’ Water Polo Dream Team Player of the Year.
Love and the other seniors want to finish their high school careers with a ring. Newport Harbor is two wins away from its 13th Division 1 title.
The Sailors pulled away from Oaks Christian (20-9), after the visitors tied the score at 4-4 late in the second quarter on Jake Benton’s power-play strike.
Liechty scored two goals in the final 1:01 of the half to give Newport Harbor a 6-4 lead. The first was assisted by his freshman brother, Ben Liechty.
“That was a tight pass,” Eli Liechty said. “I didn’t think he was going to actually pass it. The pass was a little bit surprising, so that was a tough one.”
He then scored on a sweep shot with 23 seconds left in the half. That goal was assisted by senior attacker Makoto Kenney, who scored just one goal but made an impact with five assists.
"[Kenney] scores when he needs to score, and he makes perfect passes when he needs to make perfect passes,” Liechty said. “He’s just so easy to play with. He’s one of those players who makes the game so easy. It’s so smooth, how he does it. Everything he does just makes life so much easier for everyone on our team.”
Newport Harbor sophomore Mason Hunt and senior Tommy Kennedy added third-quarter goals for the Sailors, who began to pull away. Senior defender Reed Stemler also scored, and senior goalkeeper Blake Jackson had 10 saves and two steals.
Senior attacker Alika Naone led Oaks Christian with three goals and two assists.
“We really played in the moment well,” Jackson said “I think listening to Ross was our main thing. He always tells us to listen to him, and that he can see us at a better angle and he knows what’s going on. I think we really executed that the most this game.”
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