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Laguna Beach girls’ water polo tops Newport Harbor for Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions title

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Laguna Beach’s Nicole Struss, left, reaches for the ball against defense from Newport Harbor’s Emily Cantu during the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions title match on Saturday.
(Photo by Matt Szabo)

The members of the Laguna Beach High girls’ water polo team did a team bonding activity Friday night, going to an escape room in Santa Barbara.

Coach Ethan Damato said that his group was unable to escape in the allotted time. Still, one thing he wanted for this year’s Breakers squad was to escape the prestigious Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions with a title.

“This is the only tournament that this group had never won,” he said, noting that none of the current seniors were on varsity when Laguna Beach last won the tournament in 2017. “That was kind of a goal that we had this week. We wanted to do something for the first time with this group. We wanted the seniors to go out with a win in the TOC. That was pretty special for us.”

Mission accomplished for top-seeded Laguna Beach, which started strong in the final Saturday at Goleta Dos Pueblos High and eased to an 8-3 victory over No. 3 Newport Harbor.

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The Breakers (14-1) used their team-oriented style to great success in capturing their second major tournament title of the season, and winning the Tournament of Champions for the fourth time in program history. Junior attacker Molly Renner, who had a goal, two assists and a steal in the final, earned tournament MVP honors.

Breakers junior left-hander Emma Lineback, who scored twice in the final, was an all-tournament team selection as well.

“I think we were trying to come out strong and put them away early,” Lineback said. “We wanted to limit them to under five [goals]. We came out slower in [Tuesday’s 13-9 Surf League win over Newport Harbor, which was tied 5-5 at halftime]. In this game, we just tried to come out really strong and together.”

Senior Morgan Van Alphen and junior Nicole Struss also scored twice in the final for Laguna Beach, while junior center Imani Clemons added a goal. Freshman goalkeeper Lauren Schneider made nine saves for Laguna Beach, which led 7-2 at halftime. Junior Rachael Carver had two assists and three steals for the winners.

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“It feels pretty good,” Renner said. “This is a tough tournament. Not one game is easy, physically.”

Taylor Smith scored twice in the final for Newport Harbor (12-4), and Lily Gess added a goal. Freshman goalkeeper Anna Reed made eight saves.

Reed and junior center Olivia Giolas were Newport Harbor’s all-tournament team selections.

Both the Breakers and Sailors (12-4) survived tough semifinal battles to advance to the title match. Laguna Beach defeated Foothill 9-8, avenging its only loss of the season. Renner and Lineback each had three goals, and Carver scored twice.

The Knights opened up a 4-2 lead after the first quarter. Laguna Beach didn’t retake the lead until the fourth quarter, when Lineback scored a penalty shot drawn by junior Jessie Rose for an 8-7 lead. Struss added an insurance goal on a drive inside assisted by Emma Singer.

“I thought we showed so much resiliency in that Foothill game today,” Damato said. “That was a huge character win for us ... Our girls made some great shots and some big plays when they needed to, and found a way to win.”

Newport Harbor beat Santa Barbara San Marcos 9-8 in sudden-death overtime in the second semifinal, rallying from an 8-5 fourth-quarter deficit. Sophomore Morgan Netherton scored the match-tying counterattack goal with nine seconds left in the fourth quarter, and the match-winning goal with 25 seconds left in the second sudden-death overtime period.

Sophia Stark and Avery Montiel led the Sailors with two goals each in the semifinal, and Reed made 12 saves. The Sailors won despite having Giolas foul out early in the third quarter, earning their second straight comeback win after Friday’s 10-9 quarterfinal win over Orange Lutheran.

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“I thought they showed a lot of grit,” Sailors coach Ross Sinclair said. “Physically, I think they work really hard. It’s the mental toughness that it takes to get through those games. We know that we’re always in it, but we now want to not put ourselves in that situation [where we have to rally]. But yeah, overall I thought the OLu and San Marcos games were good learning opportunities for us. It shows a lot of growth for this group.”

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