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Daily Pilot Boys’ Water Polo Dream Team: Ben Liechty a lethal lefty for Newport Harbor

Newport Harbor High junior Ben Liechty is the 2021 Daily Pilot Dream Team Boys' Water Polo Player of the Year.
Newport Harbor High junior Ben Liechty is the 2021 Daily Pilot Dream Team Boys’ Water Polo Player of the Year. Liechty, a left-handed attacker, helped the Sailors win the CIF Southern Section Open Division and CIF State SoCal Regional Division I titles.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Ben Liechty followed his brothers into the sport of water polo at a young age, 7 years old.

Liechty is the last of three siblings to make his way through the Newport Harbor High boys’ water polo program. Jake Liechty, who graduated in 2019, now plays for UC Irvine. Eli Liechty, a center who graduated last spring, now plays for UCLA.

Ben has a year to go before joining his brothers in college. He’s a junior left-handed attacker for the Sailors.

Ben is also the Liechty with a CIF Southern Section championship ring, after he helped the Sailors win the inaugural CIF Southern Section Open Division title this fall and the CIF State Southern California Regional Division I crown.

“In the moment, they were really happy,” Ben Liechty said of his brothers’ reaction. “Their teams were building up to what our team was able to accomplish.”

Ben has already spent three years as a varsity starter for the Sailors. Without him, Newport Harbor probably doesn’t accomplish nearly as much this fall.

The 6-foot-4 Liechty showcased an accurate shot, as well as solid defense. His passing also proved an asset to Newport Harbor, as he dished the ball out to teammates as a sort of point guard in the Sailors’ offense.

For his efforts, Liechty is the 2021-22 Daily Pilot Boys’ Water Polo Dream Team Player of the Year.

Newport Harbor's Ben Liechty looks for a shot against Huntington Beach during a Surf League match on Oct. 27.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

He helped Newport Harbor win its first CIF championship since 2007. The Sailors also became the first public school to win in the top division of CIF since El Toro in 2009.

“His biggest growth this year from previous years is his ability to step up in all phases of the game, whether it’s a defensive assignment, producing a goal or making the right pass or right read,” Sailors coach Ross Sinclair said. “He seemed to do a really good job of always delivering in all phases of the game for us. Every championship team needs someone who can step up.”

Liechty helped Newport’s club program win a USA Water Polo Junior Olympics 14-and-under title in 2019, just before he entered the Sailors program as a freshman. He was tournament MVP.

His talent was evident then, but he has continued to grow the last couple of years as well.

Sinclair said that Liechty, a first-team All-Surf League selection and the Open Division Player of the Year, has always shown himself to be a dynamic player with a high water polo IQ.

“I think one thing that goes kind of unnoticed is that he plays the game with a lot of passion, a lot of joy,” Sinclair said. “That’s infectious on the rest of the group. From a coaching perspective, that’s something that I really appreciate. He seems to be always enjoying himself out there, competing and working hard and making the right plays.”

Newport Harbor High junior Ben Liechty is the 2021 Daily Pilot Dream Team Boys' Water Polo Player of the Year.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Liechty said he has enjoyed coming up in the program with the Sailors, who lost to Huntington Beach twice in Surf League play but were able to beat the Oilers 12-7 for the Open Division title at Irvine’s Woollett Aquatics Center. That included a scorching first half, which ended with Newport Harbor up, 8-2.

Liechty scored three goals in the final, tying him for team-best honors with Gage Verdegaal and Peter Castillo. He also had three assists.

“Within our team, I think we had the confidence and the expectation of winning CIF,” Liechty said. “Throughout the season, that built. I think our chemistry of our team, playing with each other since we were all 10 years old, helped us. We were able to play as a team together.

"[The championship match] was great. That was the greatest feeling ever, but the last quarter felt like the longest seven minutes of my life. We just wanted to finish it.”

Here’s a look at the coach of the year and other first- and second-team Dream Team selections:

Newport Harbor's Ross Sinclair gives instructions to his team during a match against Laguna Beach on Nov. 4.
Newport Harbor’s Ross Sinclair gives instructions to his team during a CIF Southern Section Open Division boys’ water polo playoff match against Laguna Beach on Nov. 4.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

COACH OF THE YEAR

Ross Sinclair

Newport Harbor

Sinclair brought his alma mater its 13th CIF Southern Section title, but first since 2007. It was also the first title as a coach for Sinclair, who has been coaching high school water polo since 2013, first for the CdM girls before returning to Newport Harbor. He was the CIF Southern Section Open Division Coach of the Year.

The Sailors used a team-based approach to win the inaugural Open Division title. They were prepared in the final against league rival Huntington Beach, running away to an 8-2 halftime lead on the way to the 12-7 win. Newport Harbor then backed it up by winning the CIF State Southern California Regional Division I title, and with an in-season win over Northern California power Atherton Sacred Heart Prep, the Sailors could make an argument as the top team in the nation.

FIRST TEAM

Huntington Beach's James Rozolis-Hill loads up to take a shot under pressure from a Harvard-Westlake defender on Nov. 10.
Huntington Beach’s James Rozolis-Hill loads up to take a shot under pressure from a Harvard-Westlake defender during a CIF Southern Section Open Division semifinals game at Woollett Aquatics Center on Wednesday, Nov. 10.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

James Rozolis-Hill

2M | Huntington Beach | Sr.

Rozolis-Hill was a dominant man in the middle all season long for the Oilers, returning after sitting out as a junior last spring due to coronavirus concerns. He excelled not only at scoring, but racking up the power-play chances for Huntington Beach, which won the Surf League title and advanced to the CIF Southern Section Open Division title match as the top seed. The 6-foot-5 Rozolis-Hill, bound for Harvard, had a team-best 109 goals and was the Surf League co-MVP, as well as a first-team All-CIF selection.

Mason Hunt takes a shot on goal in a game against rival Huntington Beach on Oct. 27.
Newport Harbor High’s Mason Hunt takes a shot on goal against Surf League rival Huntington Beach on Oct. 27.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Mason Hunt

ATT | Newport Harbor | Sr.

Sinclair called Hunt as good of a leader as he’s seen in his coaching career. The three-year varsity starter, a co-captain, also was a dynamic player for the Sailors. He showed the smarts of a student-athlete bound for Harvard with an unweighted 4.0 grade-point average. Hunt was a first-team All-Surf League player and also first-team All-CIF.

Laguna Beach's Will Kelly celebrates after scoring a goal against Newport Harbor on Nov. 4.
Laguna Beach’s Will Kelly celebrates after scoring a goal against Newport Harbor during a CIF Southern Section Open Division boys’ water polo playoff game on Nov. 4.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Will Kelly

ATT | Laguna Beach| Sr.

In the same tough Surf League as the Sailors and Oilers, Kelly made sure that the Breakers held their own. Bound for Cal, the team’s unquestioned leader scored 110 goals, helping Laguna Beach finish third in league and reach the Open Division playoffs before falling in a relatively tight 14-8 match to Newport Harbor in the quarterfinals. Kelly scored four goals in that match. He was a first-team All-Surf League and first-team All-CIF selection.

Corona del Mar's Andrew Bertoia takes a shot during the Battle of the Bay rivalry match on Sept. 22.
Corona del Mar’s Andrew Bertola takes a shot under pressure from Newport Harbor’s Peter Castillo during the Battle of the Bay rivalry match on Sept. 22.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Andrew Bertoia

DEF | Corona del Mar | Sr.

Bertoia was the only senior starter for the rebuilding Sea Kings, who featured a bevy of sophomores this year. But his leadership helped CdM form a solid core up the middle of the pool, along with sophomore center Camren Simoncelli. Bertoia helped CdM, despite a fourth-place finish and winless campaign in the ultra-tough Surf League, qualify for the CIF Southern Section Division 2 playoffs and earn a wild-card win at Goleta Dos Pueblos. He was a first-team all-league player.

Huntington Beach's Nikola Mirkovic takes a shot during a CIF Southern Section Open Division semifinal game on Nov. 10.
Huntington Beach’s Nikola Mirkovic takes a shot under pressure from Harvard-Westlake’s Jaxson Tierney during a CIF Southern Section Open Division semifinal game at Woollett Aquatics Center on Nov. 10.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Nikola Mirkovic

ATT | Huntington Beach | Sr.

Mirkovic had to sit out his junior year after transferring from Woodbridge. But he made his senior year count as one of the most dangerous shooters in the high school game. The Cal-bound Mirkovic earned co-Surf League MVP honors and scored 68 goals for the Oilers. He was a first-team All-CIF Open Division selection.

Newport Harbor High's Gage Verdegaal scores against Mater Dei in the CIF State SoCal Division I title game on Nov. 20.
Newport Harbor High’s Gage Verdegaal scores one of his four goals against Mater Dei in the CIF State SoCal Division I title game on Nov. 20.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Gage Verdegaal

ATT | Newport Harbor | Sr.

Verdegaal teamed with Liechty to give the Sailors arguably the best left-handed duo in the section. A co-captain, Verdegaal netted a team-best four goals to help the Sailors beat Mater Dei for the CIF State Southern California Regional Division I title, closing out their remarkable season. Verdegaal, whose mother Lori is the team manager for the U.S. men’s national team, was a second-team All-Surf League and second-team All-CIF pick.

Newport Harbor goalie Cooper Mathisrud blocks a shot during the CIF Southern Section Open Division title match on Nov. 13.
Newport Harbor goalkeeper Cooper Mathisrud blocks a shot by Huntington Beach during the second half of the CIF Southern Section Open Division title match on Nov. 13.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Cooper Mathisrud

GK | Newport Harbor | Jr.

Mathisrud split time as goalkeeper much of the season. In the playoffs, though, the job was all his, and he stepped up to deliver some of his best performances. His quickness in the cage made a difference, as did his consistency; he made 10 saves in all three of the Sailors’ CIF Southern Section Open Division playoff wins over Laguna Beach, Mater Dei and finally Huntington Beach. Mathisrud was a second-team All-CIF selection.

SECOND TEAM

Position, Name, School, Year

ATT Joseph Stanbridge, Ocean View, So.

2M Peter Castillo, Newport Harbor, So.

ATT Tommy Kelly, Edison, Sr.

ATT Wes Brazda, Costa Mesa, So.

DEF Ryder Dodd, Huntington Beach, So.

ATT Sai Bassett, Laguna Beach, Jr.

ATT Dane Dodge, Estancia, Sr.

GK Gabriel Haddad, Huntington Beach, Sr.

::

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