Newport Harbor clamps down, dominates Battle of the Bay in boys’ water polo

“Unacceptable” was the word that Newport Harbor High boys’ water polo coach Ross Sinclair used to describe his defense last weekend.

The Sailors had just given up 15 goals to rival Corona del Mar in the third-place game of the S&R Cup. Sure, they scored 16 and won in sudden-death overtime, but Sinclair said it felt like a loss.

The teams matched up Friday night in a more hyped game, the annual Battle of the Bay rivalry game at Newport Harbor High.

This time, Sinclair used words like “on,” “focused” and “locked in” to describe the defense after the game. And this one sure felt like a win.

Newport Harbor clamped down and ran away with the game, routing the Sea Kings 8-2 in front of a packed house. It was the Sailors’ first Battle of the Bay triumph in four years.

Seniors John Rankin and Jackson Westerman scored two goals each to lead a balanced attack for the home team, but it was the defense that was the story. Newport Harbor (15-3) shut out CdM (12-6) for the first 13-plus minutes of the game, until Henry Wilde’s power play goal with less than a minute remaining in the half.

By then, Newport had built a 5-1 lead on goals by Makoto Kenney, Westerman, Jack White, Rankin and Ryan Brosnan. Longtime former CdM coach Barry O’Dea, watching from the stands, tried to get the Sea Kings faithful fired up midway through the first quarter. But there was no answer to the Sailors’ defense.

“With a big game like that, that’s the way you have to do it,” Rankin said. “You have to come out strong, you have to take them by surprise … The past week at practice, [defense] is all we’ve been working on. Everything’s defense. They only put up two goals, and that just shows how much we’ve been working on it.”

The sixth and final Sailors field player, senior Jason Grew, got into the act to answer Wilde just before halftime. Grew struck from eight meters to give Newport a 6-1 advantage at half.

“Obviously, we pride ourselves on defense,” Sinclair said. “We talked about keeping composure and never being content, and it was great. Yeah, they put on a really nice display of water polo.”

Wilde struck again for the Sea Kings early in the third quarter, taking the pass from senior goalie Will Snyder (two saves and two steals) and scoring on the counterattack. The Sailors’ lead was cut to four goals with 6:27 remaining in the third quarter.

But again, CdM would go on a 13-plus minute scoring drought. This one ended the game.

“It feels like we just never really got our rhythm,” CdM coach Kareem Captan said. “First of all, hat’s off to Newport and Ross and those boys, they did a great job. I think our boys were flustered and I think that they struggled to find their identity on the offensive end. Our balance was off, our patience was off, our shot selection wasn’t there.”

Newport Harbor senior goalie Max Sandberg made nine saves, and Sinclair said the Sailors benefited from standout set defense from Grew, Rankin, Charlie Covina and Reed Stemler.

Kenney and Westerman each had five steals for the Sailors, ranked No. 5 in CIF Southern Section Division 1 and 2, and White had three. Overall, Newport Harbor had 17 steals in the game, compared to nine for No. 10-ranked CdM. Kenney, White and Brosnan led the way with two field blocks each.

“Jackson, defensively, that was the best we’ve seen him,” Sinclair said. “They kept posting him up, and he was great. And it was a good game for Max, much-needed for him to get back into some good rhythm. I think Saturday was a little rough for him [at the tournament]. But as a team, it was a really solid team defensive effort.”

Hayden Roletter, Mitchell Cooper and Tanner Pulice each had two steals for the Sea Kings, who return to play Tuesday with a Pacific Coast League game at Beckman. CdM could see the Sailors for a possible third meeting next weekend, as both teams head to the Bay Area for the Memorial Cup tournament.

“Nothing would make me more happy than to see Newport up north,” Captan said. “Our boys don’t back down from challenges, and I think our boys would love to see them again up north. When it comes to Newport and CdM, it’s always a pleasure to see those boys battle it out. I want to have another go at it, for sure, and I know our boys do too.”

But there is only one Battle of the Bay game. And getting a win in that game is an experience that the Newport seniors finally have, for the first time in high school. They return to action Saturday, when they play host to El Toro at 1:30 p.m.

“We’ve been watching [Battle of the Bay] since we were little kids in club water polo,” Sandberg said. “To be a part of it now and win your senior year, it just feels amazing.”

Twitter: @mjszabo