Before Thursday night, the last time that the Newport Harbor High girls’ water polo team had made the semifinals of the CIF Southern Section Division 1 playoffs was 2015.
It might not be a coincidence that it was the last year of late coach Bill Barnett’s 49-year coaching career with the Sailors. Newport Harbor’s current coach, Ross Sinclair, played for Barnett at the school in the early 2000s and it’s clear the respect he has for him.
When Barnett passed away on Dec. 24, 2018, Sinclair immediately renamed the Holiday Cup tournament to the Bill Barnett Holiday Cup. And Sinclair has preached defense like his mentor. As Barnett used to say, “If they don’t score any goals, we win.”
Newport Harbor continued its rebuild Thursday with a big victory, and it started with defense. Sophomore Taylor Smith had four goals and seven steals as the No. 4-seeded Sailors beat Santa Margarita 9-7 in the first round at Saddleback College.
The Sailors (21-7) will make their first semifinal appearance in five years when they play top-seeded Laguna Beach (28-1) on Wednesday at Irvine’s Woollett Aquatics Center, at a time to be determined. The defending champion Breakers beat Los Alamitos 12-7 in another first-round match.
Laguna Beach is 4-0 against Newport Harbor this season, but the Sailors have hung with the Breakers in stretches.
“Staying in the moment [will be key], and not letting the little flaws and mistakes in the game set us back,” Smith said. “You just have to keep pushing through. Our team spirit, I think, is [more than] most teams. I think we’re going to be able to push each other hard enough. If we really work hard, I think we’ll be able to stay in the game.”
The Newport Harbor defense did not look solid early Thursday, as Trinity League champion Santa Margarita (19-9) scored goals on its first two possessions of the match. First Caroline Christl, then Honnie Vandeweghe, found the back of the net.
But the Eagles would score just five more goals over the course of the match. Freshman goalkeeper Anna Reed made eight saves for Newport Harbor, which got stellar set defense from players like senior Emily Cantu and sophomore Lily Gess.
Sophomore Alex Love had three steals for the Sailors, and sophomore Morgan Netherton had a goal and three assists. Junior center Olivia Giolas drew three exclusions.
“I thought throughout the game, the girls did a great job of responding to anything that happened in a negative way,” Sinclair said. “It’s exactly what you want from a group. We got some nerves settled down and got some control. We were communicating really well, and the overall effort just crashing and helping each other out was incredible.”
Cantu, just one of three seniors along with left-hander Ashley Salem and Skylar Sepulveda, is relied on for leadership on a young team. She had an assist and a field block. She called the Sailors a family, calling herself the “crazy aunt” in that family.
“Emily has a lot of team spirit and she’s really good at hyping our team up,” Smith said with a grin.
Christl, a Cal commit who had four goals, scored a backhand goal to pull Santa Margarita within 7-6 early in the fourth quarter. But Smith scored a pair of power-play goals to give the Sailors some breathing room. Vandeweghe, a star junior attacker who scored twice for Santa Margarita, fouled out midway through the quarter.
Newport Harbor was indeed on its way to its first semifinal in five years, not that Sinclair is surprised.
“We have great leadership from these girls,” he said. “I don’t look at it like we’re young. We’re experienced, and I think it trumps that.”
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