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Laguna Beach girls’ water polo back on top at Irvine Southern California Championships

Laguna Beach's Nicole Struss (16) battles with Foothill's Claire Poissonnier (5) in the Irvine Southern California Championships title match at Irvine's Woollett Aquatics Center on Saturday.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Lauren Schneider made a mistake Saturday afternoon, but the Laguna Beach High girls’ water polo freshman goalkeeper was given an immediate chance to make up for it.

Schneider was called for a five-meter penalty shot in the fourth quarter against rival Foothill. At the time, the Irvine Southern California Championships title match was tied 6-6.

Schneider positioned herself back between the pipes, waiting for Foothill senior left-hander Malia Allen to take the shot.

“It was very stressful,” she said. “Seeing the coaches and my teammates supporting me just gave me a lot of confidence to block it. Since I caused the five-meter, I had to block it.”

The shot went to her left, and Schneider indeed stuffed it with 3:19 remaining in the quarter. The Knights wouldn’t be scoring on Schneider and the Breakers again.

Instead it was top-seeded Laguna Beach that finished strong, earning an 8-6 win over No. 3-seeded Foothill for the championship at Woollett Aquatics Center. Laguna Beach (25-1) also more than likely locked up the top seed for the CIF Southern Section Division 1 playoffs, which begin Feb. 13.

The Breakers have simply had an amazing run over the last several years. They won their sixth Irvine Southern California Championships title in seven seasons. This was also the fourth time that Laguna Beach has accomplished the “triple crown,” winning all three major in-season tournaments after also capturing the Bill Barnett Holiday Cup and Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions titles.

“We were fired up to make that happen,” said junior center Nicole Struss, who scored a match-high four goals in the final and earned tournament MVP honors. Fellow juniors Emma Lineback and Rachael Carver were also all-tournament team selections.

The Breakers trailed Foothill (21-4) for much of the title match and again struggled against the Knights on six-on-five, converting two of nine chances. Foothill, led by senior Mallory Reynoso with three goals, converted four of its five power-play opportunities.

But Laguna Beach outscored Foothill 3-0 in the fourth quarter. Struss’ goal from center tied the score at 6-6 early on. Schneider’s penalty-shot block, one of four saves for her in the fourth quarter, kept it that way.

“That was huge,” Breakers coach Ethan Damato said. “Arguably the play of the game, for sure. She’s really come on late. I think that we’ve gotten better around her, and she’s gotten more comfortable. She’s been great. I would say the last three weeks she’s been playing her best, and that’s what we need right now.”

Lineback’s drive inside, assisted by Carver, gave the Breakers a 7-6 lead with 2:54 remaining. On Laguna Beach’s next possession, Struss’ cross-cage blast from six meters gave her team some breathing room.

“We always know that it’s going to be a hard game against them, and it’s going to be a game with four quarters of battling,” Struss said. “It was just fun to finally put it together at the end, just come out and finally finish the game the right way.”

Lineback had two goals and three assists for Laguna Beach, while Carver had a goal and two assists. Molly Renner also scored for the winners, who got assists from Jessie Rose and Kenedy Corlett.

Laguna Beach beat Santa Barbara San Marcos 12-2 in a tournament semifinal match earlier Saturday, and Damato called it the most consistent match of the season. Struss and Emma Singer led the way with three goals each, while Lineback had two goals and two assists.

Laguna Beach, which has already clinched the outright Surf League title, closes out league play with a match against Los Alamitos on Tuesday at 4 p.m. at Newport Harbor High. The Breakers’ final regular-season match is Friday, at home against Manhattan Beach Mira Costa at 4:15 p.m.

Laguna Beach’s players hurried off the pool deck Saturday to get ready for their winter formal dance, held at Soka University.

“I’m just proud of this team and the way we consistently come to play every day,” Damato said. “We’ve got a target on our backs. Everyone comes out and gives us their best, and I just love the way we keep answering the call.”

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