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Huntington Beach boys’ water polo takes over outright first place in Surf League

James Rozolis-Hill (8) of Huntington Beach gets position as he shoots and scores against Newport Harbor on Wednesday.
James Rozolis-Hill (8) of Huntington Beach gets position as he shoots and scores during a Surf League water polo game against Newport Harbor on Wednesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Every time the Huntington Beach High boys’ water polo team scored a goal, Newport Harbor seemed to have an answer.

The battle between the Surf League rivals went down to the final quarter, but the Oilers finished strong to secure a 15-12 victory Wednesday night at Corona del Mar High.

Huntington Beach (16-2, 3-0 in league), the defending league champion, moved into outright first place halfway through the campaign.

The Oilers were coming off winning the S&R Sport Tournament title on Saturday.

“I think we established a good momentum and had two good days of practice this week,” said Harvard-bound senior center James Rozolis-Hill, who had a match-high five goals for the Oilers on Wednesday. “I think the momentum carried through this game, for sure. It started at the defensive end, honestly, just getting stops. That set up the offense to get goals.”

Newport Harbor's Ben Liechty (13) shoots a penalty shot during Wednesday's Surf League match against Huntington Beach.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Defense was at a premium, as the teams combined for 27 goals. Huntington Beach never trailed after Newport Harbor’s Peter Castillo and Ben Liechty scored power-play goals to open the scoring in the first quarter.

Still, the match was tied 2-2 after the first quarter and 6-6 at halftime. Newport Harbor’s Mason Hunt scored a power-play goal that tied it again, at 8-8, with 3:08 remaining in the third quarter.

Then the Oilers made their move. Rozolis-Hill drew and scored a penalty shot. Then, on another power-play drawn by Rozolis-Hill, Tas Palcza’s goal gave Huntington Beach a 10-8 lead with 36 seconds remaining in the quarter.

Gage Verdegaal scored on the other end for Newport Harbor, but Nikola Mirkovic’s skip shot from five meters with two seconds left gave Huntington Beach an 11-9 lead headed into the final frame.

Verdegaal’s third goal brought the Sailors within 12-11, but Rozolis-Hill and Zach Bettino added goals in the next two minutes for the Oilers to reestablish a three-goal advantage.

Tas Palcza (5) of Huntington Beach takes a quick pass and scores in front of the net against Newport Harbor on Wednesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“It was not the prettiest, but it’s still relatively early in the season, right?” Huntington Beach coach Sasa Branisavljevic said. “Hopefully we are saving the best for the end. But it’s a win. We’re happy with it. I told the guys, we’re super-hard on ourselves. We marinate on the losses for a long time. So yeah, the win is ugly, but it’s a win.”

Huntington Beach avenged a loss to Newport Harbor (11-3, 2-1) in the semifinals of the South Coast Tournament on Sept. 18. The teams came into Wednesday’s match tied for second in the CIF Southern Section Division 1 poll, along with Studio City Harvard-Westlake.

Mater Dei, the top-ranked team in Division 1, outlasted No. 5 Orange Lutheran 8-7 in a Trinity League match Wednesday. Huntington Beach is the only team that has beaten the Monarchs this year, at the Santa Barbara Tournament on Sept. 11.

Bettino and sophomore Ryder Dodd each scored three goals for the Oilers, who got two goals each from Mirkovic and Palcza. Goalkeeper Gabriel Haddad made nine saves.

Newport Harbor's Billy Rankin (11) chases down a ball during Wednesday's Surf League water polo game versus Huntington Beach.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Liechty led Newport Harbor with four goals and five assists. Verdegaal and Castillo each scored three goals, while goalkeeper Cooper Mathisrud made eight of his nine saves in the first half.

“We lost control of the game in the middle of the second quarter,” Newport Harbor coach Ross Sinclair said. “It’s hard to go goal-for-goal with a team like that, they have a lot of very talented players.”

Newport Harbor is playing in the Elite 12 tournament, hosted by Harvard-Westlake, this weekend. The No. 3-seeded Sailors opened Thursday night with a match against Santa Barbara.

Huntington Beach’s next match is on Monday at home against Oaks Christian.

The Sailors and Oilers will meet again in their Surf League finale, scheduled for Oct. 27 at Los Alamitos High School.

Nikola Mirkovic (3) of Huntington Beach shoots and scores after a quick interior pass during Wednesday's match.
Nikola Mirkovic (3) of Huntington Beach shoots and scores after a quick interior pass during a Surf League water polo game against Newport Harbor on Wednesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

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