Laguna Beach duo helps U.S. water polo women win the FINA Youth World Championship

 Laguna Beach's Ava Knepper was on the U.S. Youth National Team that beat Greece. Above, she blocks a player in December.
Laguna Beach High’s Ava Knepper, seen blocking a scoring attempt in a tournament last December, scored a goal Monday in the final as the U.S. women’s water polo Youth National Team outlasted Greece, 10-8, in the FINA Youth World Championships title match in Belgrade, Serbia.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Another month, another tournament, another gold medal for Laguna Beach High incoming junior Ava Knepper.

This one also has a world championship that comes with it.

Knepper scored a goal in the final as the U.S. women’s water polo Youth National Team outlasted Greece, 10-8, in the FINA Youth World Championships title match on Monday in Belgrade, Serbia.

It is the first youth world crown since 2014 for Team USA, and also avenged a loss to Greece earlier in the tournament.

“There’s not even words to describe it,” Knepper said in a phone interview Tuesday. “When we were on the podium, singing our national anthem, it just felt surreal to be doing it.”

Laguna Beach resident Genoa Rossi, a Mater Dei High graduate headed to UCLA, also contributed for Team USA. The squad was coached by former longtime Laguna Beach coach Ethan Damato.

Knepper was the youngest player on the roster.

Last month, the same personnel were involved as the U.S. won the Pan American Junior World Championships in Indianapolis.

“It was a big win tonight,” Damato told USA Water Polo after Monday’s victory. “It was great to be able to come back and play Greece again. They’re a great team. We have an amazing group. They love each other, and we just had a blast this trip. It’s a great way to finish.”

Jenna Flynn scored three goals in the final for Team USA and finished with 29 goals, the leading scorer in the tournament.

The Americans had lost to Greece 15-14 in their third match of the tournament, despite two goals from Knepper and one from Rossi. They also beat Uzbekistan, Japan and Kazakhstan before moving on to the quarterfinals.

“It was awesome to beat [Greece],” Knepper said. “I almost was happy that we lost to them in the beginning, because it gave us a harder road to make it to the finals. It gave us more fuel to our fire to beat them.

"[This summer] has given me a new perspective on the sport. I’ve seen new ways to create and I’ve found new joy for the sport. I’ve made such incredible bonds with amazing people from other teams and my team. It just gave me a whole new perspective in general, and more confidence as a player.”

Team USA beat Spain 13-9 in the quarterfinals, and Italy 18-9 in the semifinals.

The U.S. men’s team will also compete in Serbia this week at the FINA Youth World Championships, beginning Thursday with a game against host Serbia at 11:30 a.m. Pacific time.

The team includes recent Newport Harbor High graduate Gage Verdegaal, Newport Harbor incoming senior Ben Liechty and incoming junior Peter Castillo.

Sailors head coach Ross Sinclair also is the head coach for the U.S. men at the tournament.


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