Laguna Beach’s Ava Knepper helps Team USA win water polo gold at Junior Pan Ams

Laguna Beach's Ava Knepper.
Laguna Beach’s Ava Knepper, shown shooting against Newport Harbor last December, helped the U.S. women’s Youth National Team win gold.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Ava Knepper, an incoming junior at Laguna Beach High, scored six goals in the championship match of the Pan American Junior Water Polo Championships on Saturday in Indianapolis. This was more than enough to help Team USA beat Canada, 17-4, for the gold medal.

The U.S. men’s Youth National Team, featuring recent Newport Harbor High graduate Gage Verdegaal, incoming Sailors senior left-hander Ben Liechty and incoming Sailors junior center Peter Castillo, lost to Brazil 13-10 via shootout in the gold-medal match.

Knepper put on quite the performance for the U.S. women, who had her former Laguna Beach head coach Ethan Damato guiding them in Indiana.

“I thought we came out with a lot of energy and we [moved] the ball around really well,” Knepper said to USA Water Polo following the gold-medal match. “It was the fire and passion that we had that led me to have goals and other people as well, and why it was such a high-scoring game.”

Incoming Foothill High senior center Rachel Gazzaniga scored four goals for Team USA in the gold-medal match, while San Marcos High incoming senior Ava Stryker had two goals and three assists and earned tournament MVP honors.

The final win completed an undefeated run to the title for Team USA, which also beat Argentina (22-5), Chile (28-2), Canada (14-6) and Brazil (13-3) by lopsided scores.

Liechty, last year’s Daily Pilot Dream Team Player of the Year for Newport Harbor, led the Team USA men with four goals and two assists in their championship match loss.

Verdegaal added one goal for the U.S. men, who were guided by Newport Harbor High coach Ross Sinclair.

The match was tied 9-9 after regulation, but the Brazilians scored four times in the shootout while holding the U.S. to a single goal.


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