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Laguna Beach girls’ water polo pulls away to beat Newport Harbor in league opener

Laguna Beach's Ava Knepper scores a penalty goal against Newport Harbor Wednesday.
Laguna Beach’s Ava Knepper scores a penalty goal against Newport Harbor during the second half in a Surf League match on Wednesday.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)
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The Laguna Beach High girls’ water polo team has had some tough losses in the last couple of weeks.

A big victory to open the Surf League might have been just what the Breakers needed headed into this weekend’s Tournament of Champions.

Senior center Charlotte Riches and junior attacker Ava Knepper combined for seven goals as Laguna Beach won at Newport Harbor, 9-5, on Wednesday in its league opener.

Laguna Beach's Charlotte Riches, bottom, scores against Newport Harbor's Caitlin Stayt during the first half Wednesay.
Laguna Beach’s Charlotte Riches, bottom, scores against Newport Harbor’s Caitlin Stayt during the first half of a Surf League match on Wednesday.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Prior to Wednesday, Laguna Beach had lost three of its previous four matches, including the program’s first three-match losing streak since 2010.

But the Breakers (7-4), ranked No. 5 in CIF Southern Section Division 1, finished strong to dispatch No. 6 Newport Harbor (11-3, 1-1 in league) in the first matchup this season of last year’s Open Division finalists.

“The games we’ve played recently maybe haven’t gone the way that we wanted, but we haven’t turned on each other at all in any of those games,” said Riches, bound for Princeton. “We always just look forward and know that it’s going to be fuel to our fire. We all trust and love each other so much, so as long as we’re moving forward together, we’re good.”

Newport Harbor's Ryan Chalupnik, left, scores against Laguna Beach's Lauren Short during Wednesday's Surf League showdown.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Laguna pulled away after taking a 4-3 halftime lead. Riches had a goal from center before flipping the ball to sophomore teammate Presley Jones, a right-hander who appeared to score a quick sweep shot with her left hand.

“I think that speaks to our chemistry and knowing someone’s going to be there,” Riches said. “We practice so much at practice just trusting where our teammates are, reading where the defenders are coming from. I think our love for each other and our bond really solidifies that; we’re able to make crazy plays like that.”

Knepper, who said she was back to full strength after battling a recent illness, drew a penalty shot with eight seconds left in the third quarter. She put it away, and suddenly Laguna Beach had a commanding 7-3 lead headed into the final quarter.

Junior Emmy Hensley added a goal for Laguna Beach, which got two steals and an assist from sophomore Kara Carver and a steal and an assist from senior Jordan Schneider. Her twin sister, Lauren Schneider, made six saves in goal and added a pair of assists.

Laguna Beach's Jordan Schneider, left, competes against Newport Harbor's Harper Price during the second half Wednesday.
Laguna Beach’s Jordan Schneider, left, competes against Newport Harbor’s Harper Price during the second half of a Surf League match on Wednesday.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

The Breakers were also stout defensively, and held the Sailors scoreless in eight power-play chances.

“[Laguna’s] a very talented and athletic group,” Newport Harbor coach Ross Sinclair said. “It’s going to be hard. I don’t expect them to go eight-for-eight, but there’s a couple little things, just little missed reads and missed passes. In the moment, we made some little mistakes, and against a team like that it’s hard to get that back. For us, it’s just learning and growing every game.”

Sinclair said he liked the fight of his team, which was led by junior center Ryan Chalupnik with three goals and five exclusions drawn.

Prior to the match, Newport Harbor held a senior day ceremony to honor its three seniors — USC-bound goalkeeper Anna Reed, Long Beach State-bound attacker Chiara Amoroso and injured left-hander Avery Montiel, headed to Stanford.

Newport Harbor's Chloe Rizof, top, shoots against Laguna Beach's Presley Jones during Wednesday's match.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Reed made eight saves in the match, including a pair of impressive one-on-nobody stuffs. Amoroso contributed a goal and a team-best three steals, and junior attacker Sophia Del Villar added a goal.

Both teams now prepare for the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions, which begins Friday for the teams in the main 16-team draw. Laguna Beach will face either Studio City Harvard-Westlake or Murrieta Valley in the first round Friday at 2 p.m. at Santa Barbara High, while Newport Harbor opens against Mater Dei Friday at 1 p.m. at Dos Pueblos High.

Should the No. 4-seeded Breakers win their opener, they’d likely earn a rematch against No. 5 Foothill in a Tournament of Champions quarterfinal on Friday night. Laguna Beach lost at Foothill, 8-6, on Jan. 5.

“With this weekend coming up, Tournament of Champions, we knew this [Newport Harbor] game was going to be really important for the mood of the team,” Riches said. “I’m really glad that we finished this game strong, and hopefully that leads into Tournament of Champions and everyone’s feeling good. I think this was a really satisfying win.”

Newport Harbor's Angie Peterson, center, passes the ball defended by Laguna Beach's Kara Carver during Wednesday's match.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

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