Local high school water polo stars set to debut for Team USA

Newport Harbor's Taylor Smith, left, and Laguna Beach's Ava Knepper will be Team USA teammates at FINA Intercontinental Cup.
Newport Harbor’s Taylor Smith, left, and Laguna Beach’s Ava Knepper, shown competing against each other in Surf League action this winter, will be Team USA women’s water polo teammates at the FINA Intercontinental Cup.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

They just completed a successful high school girls’ water polo season. Now, some local teenage standouts will get to represent the United States women’s senior national team for the first time.

Newport Harbor High seniors Morgan Netherton and Taylor Smith, as well as Laguna Beach sophomore Ava Knepper, have all been selected to play for Team USA in next week’s FINA Intercontinental Cup in Lima, Peru.

Laguna Beach resident Genoa Rossi, who attends Mater Dei High, is also on the roster, while Laguna Beach High coach Ethan Damato will serve as the head coach.

The U.S. men’s team at the tournament features Huntington Beach High graduate Chase Dodd and Newport Harbor junior Ben Liechty, who earned Daily Pilot Dream Team Player of the Year honors last fall for the Sailors.

“I’m so beyond excited,” said Netherton, who helped the Newport Harbor girls join the boys as CIF Southern Section Open Division and CIF Southern California Regional Division I champions this winter. “It’s going to be such a great learning experience for everybody, getting to play at that level for the first time. We’re obviously a young team, but I think we have a lot of talent and potential, so it’ll be really interesting to see how we do compared to some more seasoned national teams from other countries.”

Netherton said that when she and Smith were approached during the Newport Invite by Adam Krikorian, the women’s national team coach, about joining the trip to Peru, “both of us immediately were like, ‘Yes, of course.’ We were just so excited.”

The young players were given the opportunity to play for the national team because many older players are tied up with club commitments, as well as the ongoing collegiate women’s season.

Laguna Beach High water polo coach Ethan Damato, right, will coach the Team USA women in the FINA Intercontinental Cup.
Laguna Beach High water polo coach Ethan Damato, right, will coach the Team USA women in the FINA Intercontinental Cup.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Newport Harbor senior Bia Mantellato, a foreign exchange student, will play for her native Brazil in the tournament. Team USA plays Brazil in its first match Monday at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time.

“I think it’s going to be really fun,” Netherton said. “We were both teasing each other, like, ‘We’re going to come for you.’ It’s a good, friendly rivalry.”

A sophomore, Knepper is the youngest player on the U.S. women’s roster. But she is coming off a standout season for the Breakers in which she scored 72 goals.

The women’s squad includes goalkeeper Amanda Longan, 25, an Olympic gold medalist last year who Damato said will likely serve as team captain.

“I honestly just feel really honored to be able to play with such a mixed group of girls from everywhere all over California,” Knepper said. “I’ve known them all for a while now, but I’ve looked up to them before, and it’s really cool to play with them and Amanda Longan in Peru.”

The FINA Intercontinental Cup serves as a qualifier for the upcoming FINA World League Super Final, with the top four teams securing spots for the event later this year.


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