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Laguna Beach girls’ water polo answers challenge, beats Newport Harbor in CIF Division 1 semifinals

Laguna Beach's Emma Lineback takes a shot over Newport Harbor’s Taylor Smith and scores in the semifinals of the CIF Southern Section Division 1 playoffs at Irvine’s Woollett Aquatics Center on Wednesday.
Laguna Beach’s Emma Lineback takes a shot over Newport Harbor’s Taylor Smith and scores in the semifinals of the CIF Southern Section Division 1 playoffs at Irvine’s Woollett Aquatics Center on Wednesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The Laguna Beach High girls’ water polo team had beaten Newport Harbor four times this season before Wednesday, and no match was closer than four goals.

Coming into the teams’ CIF Southern Section Division 1 semifinal playoff match, the top-seeded Breakers had established themselves as significant favorites over the No. 4 Sailors. Still, defending champion Laguna Beach had reason not to be overconfident.

“It’s our fifth time playing them this season,” Breakers junior Nicole Struss said. “If I lost to a team four times this season, I’d have a lot of hatred toward a team. You have one last chance to give it all you’ve got, so why not give it your all?”

The young Sailors proved they belonged on the big stage, under the lights at Woollett Aquatics Center. But Laguna Beach showed its championship pedigree in the fourth quarter when it mattered most.

The Breakers rallied for a 9-7 victory and earned a chance to defend their title Saturday. Laguna Beach (29-1), which has won 18 straight matches, will play rival and No. 2-seeded Foothill (24-4) at a time to be determined at Woollett. Foothill edged No. 3 Santa Barbara San Marcos 7-6 in the other semifinal.

Laguna Beach’s Nicole Struss (16) winds up a shot and scores as Newport Harbor’s Morgan Netherton tries to defend during the semifinals of the CIF Southern Section Division 1 playoffs at Irvine’s Woollett Aquatics Center on Wednesday.
Laguna Beach’s Nicole Struss (16) winds up a shot and scores as Newport Harbor’s Morgan Netherton tries to defend during the semifinals of the CIF Southern Section Division 1 playoffs at Irvine’s Woollett Aquatics Center on Wednesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Struss and junior left-hander Emma Lineback each scored three goals for the Breakers against Newport Harbor (21-8), which trailed 4-2 at halftime but continued to battle. The Sailors took a 6-5 lead on sophomore Taylor Smith’s second power-play goal of the contest with 5:38 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Junior center Olivia Giolas drew five exclusions for Newport Harbor, which finished six for eight on the power play while holding Laguna Beach to one for seven in such chances.

“I thought we showed a lot of maturity out there, knowing that we had to play four really high-quality quarters,” Sailors coach Ross Sinclair said. “We were down 4-2 and we responded really well, so the resiliency of this group continues to show. It’s obviously a tough way to go out ... but there’s a lot of opportunity to grow and learn from this game.”

Newport Harbor’s Olivia Giolas (12) tries to get a shot off as Laguna Beach’s Emma Singer (11) and Morgan Van Alphen (2) close in during the semifinals of the CIF Southern Section Division 1 playoffs at Irvine’s Woollett Aquatics Center on Wednesday.
Newport Harbor’s Olivia Giolas (12) tries to get a shot off as Laguna Beach’s Emma Singer (11) and Morgan Van Alphen (2) close in during the semifinals of the CIF Southern Section Division 1 playoffs at Irvine’s Woollett Aquatics Center on Wednesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Laguna Beach responded as soon as it went down. Lineback drew a penalty shot and scored it, tying the score at 5-5 with 5:13 left. Less than a minute later, Molly Renner fed Struss inside for a 7-6 Breakers lead.

Rachael Carver’s pass led to Renner’s goal from the right, giving Laguna Beach an 8-6 advantage with 4:22 remaining. Lily Gess’ power-play goal brought the Sailors within one with 45 seconds remaining, but Lineback iced it, on her outside skip shot with 16 seconds remaining.

That goal was again assisted by Renner, who finished with five helpers and four steals.

“It felt nice,” said Lineback, who came into the timeout following her last goal with a big smile on her face. “I definitely was a little nervous there at the end. I definitely didn’t want to let everyone down on that. I think the entire game, everyone was just bringing so much energy. If they started or if they came off the bench, everyone was playing with so much energy. I think that was what really pushed us for the win.”

Newport Harbor’s Taylor Smith shoots and scores during the semifinals of the CIF Southern Section Division 1 playoffs against Laguna Beach at Irvine’s Woollett Aquatics Center on Wednesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Freshman goalkeeper Lauren Schneider made eight saves for Laguna Beach, which also got a backhand goal from center in the second half by junior Imani Clemons.

Newport Harbor freshman goalkeeper Anna Reed made eight saves, while Smith led the Sailors with four steals. Sophomore Morgan Netherton had three assists and three steals, and it was her lob goal from the perimeter that tied the match at 5-5 after three quarters. Senior left-hander Ashley Salem had two first-half goals for Newport Harbor, and Giolas also scored.

One adjustment that Laguna Beach coach Ethan Damato said he made was putting Struss at center defense in the fourth quarter, which helped instigate the Breakers’ counterattack.

On Saturday, Damato will try to lead the Breakers to their fifth Division 1 title in seven years.

“A semifinal win is a semifinal win, whether it’s pretty or whether it’s ugly,” said Damato, whose team’s lone loss this season came in an 8-7 setback at Foothill on Jan. 4. “Nobody really ever remembers how great you played in the semi. We’re excited to be playing in a final.”

Laguna Beach goalkeeper Lauren Schneider makes a crucial save against Newport Harbor during the semifinals of the CIF Southern Section Division 1 playoffs at Irvine’s Woollett Aquatics Center on Wednesday.
Laguna Beach goalkeeper Lauren Schneider makes a crucial save against Newport Harbor during the semifinals of the CIF Southern Section Division 1 playoffs at Irvine’s Woollett Aquatics Center on Wednesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

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