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Daily Pilot Girls’ Water Polo Dream Team: Nicole Struss provided toughness for Laguna Beach

Nicole Struss was the CIF Southern Section Division 1 Player of the Year after helping Laguna Beach earn its second straight Division 1 crown.
Nicole Struss was the CIF Southern Section Division 1 Player of the Year after helping Laguna Beach earn its second straight Division 1 crown.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Nicole Struss has been a winner on every level.

The Laguna Beach High junior has won USA Water Polo Junior Olympics titles for three straight summers, first with the Laguna Beach club in 2017 and the last two with SET. Each time, she earned tournament MVP honors.

High school water polo hasn’t been a problem for Struss, either. The Breakers’ center has been a key piece, perhaps the key piece, for the most recent years of the Laguna Beach dynasty.

Laguna Beach has won five of the last seven CIF Southern Section Division 1 titles. Struss helped the Breakers, a junior-dominated team, storm back against senior-laden Foothill for a 7-6 win in this year’s Division 1 title match.

For her leadership, Struss is the 2019-20 Daily Pilot Dream Team Girls’ Water Polo Dream Team Player of the Year.

Laguna Beach (33-1) avenged its only loss of the season and defended its Division 1 title. Struss was in the middle of it all, drawing an exclusion and a penalty shot in the fourth quarter that were instrumental to the win.

Junior left-hander Emma Lineback comes up big late as the top-seeded Breakers edge the No. 2 Knights 7-6 in the CIF Southern Section Division 1 title match.

Fellow junior Emma Lineback made the power-play goal assisted by Struss, also converting the penalty shot. That was fine to Struss, who drew four exclusions in the match. She enjoys the team aspect.

“I think everything started to come together fully at the end of the year, and we played the best we’ve played together,” Struss said. “We were just connecting on all aspects. Laguna Beach is kind of known for being a family, and I just think the chemistry is what takes us to that extra level. Every game, somebody different makes a big play, so we never are just static. I think that’s taken us really far.”

Laguna Beach's Nicole Struss shoots against Newport Harbor during the CIF Southern Section Division 1 semifinals on Feb. 19.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Struss earned her second straight Surf League MVP award for helping the Breakers go 6-0 in league play and repeat as undefeated league champions, and she was named the CIF Division 1 Player of the Year. She also led Laguna Beach to its first CIF State Southern California Regional Division I title. She was second on the Breakers with 74 goals, adding 28 assists and 25 steals.

She led the Breakers with 61 exclusions drawn, and this kind of toughness is what Breakers coach Ethan Damato saw from Struss every day in practices or in matches. She was the Most Outstanding Field Player at the Irvine Southern California Championships, helping the Breakers complete the regular season “triple crown” of major tournaments, which also includes the Bill Barnett Holiday Cup and Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions, for the fourth time.

Damato compared Struss’ intensity to that of program alumna Aria Fischer, the youngest player on the 2016 U.S. women’s water polo team that won gold at the Rio Olympics.

Fischer, the 2017 Dream Team Player of the Year, graduated from Laguna Beach that spring after leading the Breakers to three CIF titles. That fall, Struss came in and provided the same type of grit.

Laguna Beach's Nicole Struss, right, cuts off Mira Costa’s Emma May's passing lane in a nonleague match on Feb. 7.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“She loves the physical aspect of the game,” Damato said. “We love knowing that whoever Nicole is guarding, she’s going to be on them like crazy, right, bugging them up and down the pool. She’s just a frustrating player. Then as soon as the ball turns over, she’s going to be doing the same thing to them on the other side and making them work in front of the cage.

“I think that’s an underrated skill that she has, her ability to wear you down up and down the pool, at both ends. I love utilizing her in that way as a coach.”

Struss is fun to watch because her competitive nature shines through. She said she does it for her teammates, coaches and the fans, not just herself.

“If I play the hardest I can, I know that good things will happen, whether that’s me making a play or my teammates making a play,” Struss said.

Marina coach Tamara Towgood, left, jumps in the pool with her players to celebrate the Vikings’ 6-4 win over Flintridge Prep in the CIF Southern Section Division 6 final on Feb. 22.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

COACH OF THE YEAR

Tamara Towgood

Marina

Towgood, in her fourth year with the program and third year as head coach, helped the Vikings make history. Marina (22-12) had a fast start to the season, winning the Saddleback and Westminster tournaments, but that was just a preview of things to come. After showing improvement in finishing third in the Wave League, Towgood guided the Vikings to their first CIF championship match in program history. Marina made sure to finish it off with a celebratory jump in the pool, defeating La Cañada Flintridge Prep 6-4 for the CIF Southern Section Division 6 title. Credit the leadership of Towgood, a 2009 Edison graduate who also played water polo at Golden West College and the University of Hawaii, in helping a young team believe it could win. She was named the CIF Division 6 Coach of the Year.

FIRST TEAM

Laguna Beach's Emma Lineback scores against Foothill during the CIF Southern Section Division 1 title match on Feb. 22.
Laguna Beach’s Emma Lineback scores against Foothill during the CIF Southern Section Division 1 title match on Feb. 22.
(Drew A. Kelley)

Emma Lineback

ATT | Laguna Beach | Jr.

Lineback put together another strong season for the Breakers, and again came up big in the CIF Southern Section Division 1 final. The left-hander scored all three of the Breakers’ fourth-quarter goals as Laguna Beach rallied over Foothill. Lineback, an all-tournament team selection at the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions and the Irvine Southern California Championships, scored a team-high 80 goals for Laguna Beach, was second with 59 assists and added 32 steals. She was a first-team All-Surf League and first-team All-CIF Division 1 selection, and is a repeat first-team Dream Team pick.

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 on Feb. 19.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Olivia Giolas

2M | Newport Harbor | Jr.

Giolas quickly emerged into one of the best centers in the CIF Southern Section as a junior. She could take over matches at times, like when she drew six exclusions in a Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions quarterfinal match against Orange Lutheran. Newport Harbor would rally for a 10-9 win and eventually make the finals, the Sailors’ first tournament title match appearance since 2014, as Giolas earned all-tournament team honors. Giolas, a first-team All-Surf League and first-team All-CIF Division 1 selection, also helped the Sailors make the Division 1 semifinals for the first time since 2015, eventually finishing third.

Costa Mesa's Kira Anderson shoots the ball against California during the CIF Southern Section Division 5 title match on Feb. 22.
Costa Mesa’s Kira Anderson shoots the ball against California during the CIF Southern Section Division 5 title match on Feb. 22.
(Drew A. Kelley)

Kira Anderson

ATT | Costa Mesa | Fr.

Anderson made quite a splash in her first year of high school water polo, providing a needed scoring presence after the graduation of Sofia Rice. Her debut was record-breaking. Anderson scored a program single-season record 126 goals in guiding the Mustangs to their second straight outright Orange Coast League title. She then helped Costa Mesa (24-7, 4-0 in league) reach the CIF Southern Section Division 5 final, the Mustangs’ first in program history, before falling 10-6 to Whittier California. Anderson, who also had team-best totals of 74 assists and 89 steals, was the Orange Coast League MVP and a first-team All-CIF Division 5 selection.

Marina goalkeeper Emma Marsh makes a save against Costa Mesa during the second half of a nonleague match on Dec. 12, 2018.
Marina goalkeeper Emma Marsh makes a save against Costa Mesa during the second half of a nonleague match on Dec. 12, 2018.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Emma Marsh

GK | Marina | Sr.

A four-year starter in goal for the Vikings, Marsh had every bit the memorable senior season after leading the Vikings to the CIF Southern Section Division 6 title and the semifinals of the CIF State Southern California Regional Division III playoffs. With Marsh as the backbone, Marina allowed just four goals per game in their five-match run to the Division 6 title. Marsh averaged 13.2 saves per match and ended the season with 452 saves, which was a CIF Southern Section single-season record. Her 1,273 career saves ranked second in CIF history. Marsh was a first-team All-Wave League selection and also the CIF Division 6 Player of the Year.

Edison’s Sam Worley takes a shot against Marina during a Wave League match on Jan. 16.
Edison’s Sam Worley takes a shot against Marina during a Wave League match on Jan. 16.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Sam Worley

2M | Edison | Jr.

Worley had to step up at center for the Chargers (18-14), as senior center Delaney Lewellyn missed much of the season with a broken elbow. Worley responded, scoring a team-best 73 goals for Edison along with 11 assists and a team-best 28 steals. Though second-place Edison wasn’t quite able to dethrone Huntington Beach for the Wave League title, losing twice in league by scores of 10-7 and 12-11, Worley and the Chargers could take solace in the first run to the CIF Southern Section semifinals in program history. Edison advanced to the Division 4 semifinals before falling 8-7 to Glendora. Worley was a first-team All-Wave League and first-team All-CIF Division 4 selection.

Laguna Beach’s Molly Renner winds up a shot against Newport Harbor in the semifinals of the CIF Southern Section Division 1 playoffs on Feb. 19.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Molly Renner

ATT | Laguna Beach | Jr.

Renner, a three-year varsity player for the Breakers, put together another stellar season. A quick player who would often take the quarter-starting sprints for Laguna Beach, Renner finished the season with 63 goals, 43 assists and 34 steals. She was the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions MVP after helping the Breakers win that tournament for the first time since 2017. Renner had a goal, two assists and a steal in the final, a dominant 8-3 win over Newport Harbor. Renner was a first-team All-Surf League and first-team All-CIF Southern Section Division 1 selection.

Newport Harbor’s Taylor Smith takes a shot between Santa Margarita’s Carly McMurray (4) and Mara Loughlin (2) and scores in the fourth quarter of a CIF Southern Section Division 1 playoff opener on Feb. 13.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Taylor Smith

ATT | Newport Harbor | So.

Smith was a valuable contributor for the Sailors last year as a freshman, and then she stepped it up as a sophomore. An aggressive player who wasn’t afraid to take the big shot, Smith had one of her best matches in the first round of the CIF Southern Section Division 1 playoffs, recording four goals and seven steals in a 9-7 road win at Santa Margarita. Once the Sailors got to the semifinals, Smith helped them push eventual champion Laguna Beach before the Breakers won 9-7. Smith, an all-tournament team selection at the Irvine Southern California Championships, was a second-team All-Surf League and first-team All-CIF Division 1 selection.

Corona del Mar goalkeeper Maya Avital blocks a shot in a Surf League match against Newport Harbor on Jan. 23.
Corona del Mar goalkeeper Maya Avital blocks a shot in a Surf League match against Newport Harbor on Jan. 23.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Maya Avital

GK | Corona del Mar | Sr.

A repeat first-team Dream Team selection, Avital helped guide the Sea Kings through a turbulent season. Corona del Mar (12-16) finished third in the four-team Surf League at 2-4 and failed to earn an at-large berth into the CIF Southern Section Division 2 playoffs due to a sub-.500 overall record. Avital’s skills were never in question, though. Avital was voted the Most Outstanding Goalkeeper at the Irvine Southern California Championships tournament. A first-team All-Surf League and first-team All-CIF Division 2 selection, Avital is bound for Stanford.

SECOND TEAM

Position, Name, School, Year

ATT Rachael Carver, Laguna Beach, Jr.

ATT Grace Myers, Corona del Mar, Jr.

2M Taiuta Uiagalelei, Costa Mesa, Sr.

DEF Emily Tucker, Huntington Beach, Sr.

ATT Morgan Netherton, Newport Harbor, So.

DEF Emma Singer, Laguna Beach, Jr.

2M Morgan O’Connell, Huntington Beach, Jr.

GK Anna Reed, Newport Harbor, Fr.

::

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