Newport Harbor boys’ water polo avoids upset bid, eliminates Huntington Beach in overtime thriller

Christian Hammonds of Huntington Beach (4) attempts a shot around Newport Harbor's Finn Genc in the CIF  quarterfinal.
Christian Hammonds of Huntington Beach (4) tries to get a shot around Newport Harbor’s Finn Genc during the quarterfinals of the CIF Southern Section Open Division playoffs on Thursday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Back when Ross Sinclair played water polo at Newport Harbor High in the early 2000s, he said he once needed some encouragement from late legendary coach Bill Barnett after a playoff win over Laguna Beach.

The Sailors hadn’t played well, and Sinclair knew it. But Barnett still offered his congratulations.

“He goes, ‘It’s really difficult to beat a team three times in a row,’” Sinclair said.

Sinclair is now in his eighth season in charge at his alma mater. His Sailors certainly found that lesson out Thursday night in the quarterfinals of the CIF Southern Section Open Division playoffs.

Newport Harbor's Ben Liechty fires in a penalty shot for a score during Thursday night's match.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Pushed to the distance against Surf League rival Huntington Beach, the defending champion Sailors got off the ropes.

Senior left-hander Ben Liechty scored six goals and No. 2-seeded Newport Harbor rallied for a 14-12 overtime victory at its home pool, keeping its hopes of a repeat championship alive.

The Sailors (27-2) will play No. 3-seeded Studio City Harvard-Westlake in an Open Division semifinal Wednesday at 4 p.m. at Irvine’s Woollett Aquatics Center. Top-seeded JSerra faces No. 4 Mater Dei in the second semifinal.

Newport Harbor, which last year became the first public school team to win in the top division since El Toro in 2009, again finds itself as the lone public school in this year’s final four. The Sailors almost didn’t make it there after being constantly pushed by Huntington Beach (20-7).

Newport Harbor had handled the Oilers 18-10 and 20-8 in the teams’ two league meetings this year, but Huntington Beach held the lead for most of Thursday’s match.

Zach Bettino of Huntington Beach reacts to a score in the fourth period of Thursday night's match.
Zach Bettino of Huntington Beach reacts to a score in the fourth period during the quarterfinals of the Surf Open Division playoffs against Newport Harbor on Thursday night.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“Better than the last two times, right?” said Oilers coach Sasa Branisavljevic, adding that he was proud of the poise of his team throughout the match. Huntington Beach had just two seniors this year; USC-bound left-hander Zach Bettino scored a team-best four goals Thursday and Luke Hanna added two.

The Oilers took a 12-10 lead on JD Johnson’s cross-cage goal with 2:34 left in the fourth quarter. But Newport Harbor junior Peter Castillo (three goals, seven exclusions and three penalty shots drawn) answered with an inside goal.

Senior left-hander Nick Kennedy then fed Liechty for a goal with 35 seconds left, tying the score at 12-12 and sending the match to overtime after Liechty’s last-second try clanged off the left post.

Newport Harbor senior Gavin Netherton scored on a skip shot in the first overtime period, and assisted Castillo in the second one.

“When I was shooting it, I had Ben Liechty at center, right in front of me,” Netherton said. “I knew that if I missed that, I probably would have gotten pulled. But I saw the opening, and I figured I could score this right here and put us up. Overall, I think it was a pretty risky shot, but it went in.”

Christian Hammonds of Huntington Beach (4) and Finn Genc of Newport Harbor (9) get tangled up late in overtime on Thursday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Sinclair said he was proud of Netherton and Kennedy, who each answered the call off the bench late.

“They stayed ready,” Sinclair said. “We talk about being superstars of your role, and I thought they were MVPs of their role. I’m stoked for them. Sometimes minutes are extended and sometimes they’re short, and both of those guys just stayed bought in. We lose that game without those two guys.”

Finn LeSieur added three goals for the Sailors, who also got a goal from Owen Tift. Senior goalkeeper Cooper Mathisrud made three of his 10 saves in overtime.

Junior center Ethan Spoon scored twice for the Oilers. They also got single goals from Christian Hammonds and Logan Garwich, who both tallied two assists. Junior goalkeeper Jay Pyle had five saves and five steals.

Ethan Spoon of Huntington Beach (9) pulls away from Owen Tift for a score during Thursday night's match.
Ethan Spoon of Huntington Beach (9) pulls away from Owen Tift for a score during Thursday night’s match.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Newport Harbor moves on to another tough challenge against another rival, Harvard-Westlake. The Sailors have two one-goal wins over the Wolverines this season, each by the same score of 12-11.

They beat Harvard-Westlake in a nonleague home game Sept. 10 before edging a victory in the semifinals of the Delfina USA Classic, hosted by the Wolverines, on Oct. 7.

Wednesday’s Open Division semifinal game puts the Sailors in a familiar position.

“Now we’ve got to beat them three times in a row,” Sinclair said, knowing it won’t be easy.

In Division 3: Nate Ruiz scored four goals for the Costa Mesa High boys’ water polo team in an 11-9 win over El Segundo on Thursday in the second round of the playoffs.

Wes Brazda had three goals and three assists for the Mustangs (16-13). Dylan Rothenberg scored two goals and Wyatt Juelfs and Luke De La Jara scored one goal each, with Juelfs dishing out five assists.

Orange Coast League champion Costa Mesa hosts top-seeded Portola in a Division 3 quarterfinal match Saturday at 2 p.m.


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