The Studio City Harvard-Westlake boys’ water polo team again came up with an inspired defensive effort in its biggest match of the year.
A championship-level defense lifted the Wolverines on Saturday night in the CIF Southern Section Division 1 title match, against a Newport Harbor team with a ton of weapons.
Top-seeded Harvard-Westlake never trailed and beat the No. 2 Sailors 6-4 at Woollett Aquatics Center, winning Division 1 for the second straight year in a rematch of last year’s final.
Six different players scored for Harvard-Westlake (28-2), as Nico Tierney, George Avakian, George Caras, Mot Stothart, Ethan Shipman and Shay Gillearn netted one goal each. But it was the defense anchored by Stanford-bound senior goalkeeper Nolan Krutonog, who made 14 saves, that was the story.
In beating Newport Harbor (26-4) for the third time in four tries this year, Harvard-Westlake also held the Sailors to a season-low goal total in the CIF final for the second straight year. Last year, the Wolverines beat Newport Harbor 5-3 in the final.
Harvard-Westlake held Newport Harbor scoreless for the first 11-plus minutes of Saturday’s match and also held the Sailors’ talented center combination of senior Ike Love and junior Eli Liechty to zero goals.
“That’s insane,” Harvard-Westlake coach Brian Flacks said. “My kids are remarkable, that’s the only way to say it. These kids work hard, so hard all year round. I think we [have] a ton of pride in our preparation. We get a chance to play these guys all year, and we did a phenomenal job executing tonight on both ends. I thought similar to last year, there were a lot of opportunities for both teams that we could have scored. Krutonog and [Newport Harbor goalkeeper] Blake Jackson were both incredible. I mean, how many saves did they both have in front of the cage? It was incredible.”
Jackson, bound for USC, also had 14 saves for Newport Harbor.
Harvard-Westlake led 5-2 at halftime before Newport Harbor began to claw back. Sailors senior Tommy Kennedy scored two third-quarter goals to narrow his team’s deficit to a single goal. Newport Harbor nearly tied the score in the final minute of the quarter, but Krutonog made back-to-back close range saves on Liechty to keep his team ahead going into the fourth quarter.
“I looked through the notes and I actually have the stats somewhere that Eli shoots high over 80% of his shots,” Krutonog said. “I was watching film and I saw it. All I can attribute that to is just the preparation that we put into the game. Defense is where we make our money.”
Harvard-Westlake’s Shay Gillearn scored the only goal of the fourth quarter. Out of a Newport Harbor timeout, Stothart intercepted a pass from Jackson and fed Gillearn for the counterattack goal with 3:39 remaining.
“Everything at the end fell into place,” said Shipman, bound for UCLA. “Everything that we’ve been working toward clicked, I guess. We just made it happen. I just felt like there was no way that we were going to lose. Coming into the game, I always just know that with Brian, we are more prepared than the other team. We just grind and grind and grind.”
Senior Makoto Kenney scored twice for Newport Harbor, which was denied its 13th CIF championship. The Sailors’ last title came in 2007.
“Credit to [Krutonog],” said Newport Harbor coach Ross Sinclair, whose team’s lone victory against the Wolverines this year came in an 11-9 win at Harvard-Westlake on Oct. 12. “He had a really great game, which is tough for us. I think he’s their best player ... I told the seniors they should be proud of what they accomplished in their four years here. They definitely left the program in a better place than when they got here, which I think is really important.”
Both teams compete next at the CIF State Southern California Regional championships, which begin Friday.
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