Laguna girls dominate at Junior Olympics


The Laguna Beach Water Polo Club has been churning out high-level girls water polo players for a while now.

But, as a club, the success that Laguna had at last week’s USA Water Polo Junior Olympics was simply unprecedented.

After winning the 10-and-under girls championship in session one, Laguna Beach doubled down in session two on Sunday at Irvine’s Woollett Aquatics Center.

The Laguna Beach 12-and-under and 14-and-under girls also won titles. The 12U girls beat Riverside, 5-3, in the championship game, capping an undefeated season. The 14U girls topped Commerce, 10-9, in the title game for the first Junior Olympics title for this group of girls.

Center Charlotte Riches earned tournament MVP honors for the 12U girls, with center guard/utility Nicole Struss taking MVP honors for the 14U girls.

Longtime club administrator Chad Beeler said that Laguna Beach doubled its Junior Olympics championships from three to six in a single year.

“This is the best year that Laguna Beach Water Polo has ever had. We’ve never had three gold medals in one summer before,” Beeler said. “Our 12-and-under girls went undefeated all year. The 14U and 12U girls both won the U.S. Club Champs, which is pretty much the next-biggest tournament. It’s just been a fantastic year for us … We only entered in five different age groups, and we placed in three of them. It’s just amazing.”

The 12U girls, coached by Kelcie Ferreira, dealt with the pressure of an undefeated season, finishing it off with the win over Riverside in a defensive battle. Riches led the team with three goals in the final, and Lauren Short scored twice.

“I definitely think our defense was really strong,” Ferreira said. “Our goalkeeper [Lauren Schneider] was on fire the whole game. She stopped six blocks, and she assisted two goals. Then we had our other main defenders, Avery [Montiel], Cleo [Washer], Rebecca [Storke], Myha [Pinto]. Those girls held down some of the top players in 12-and-unders, took them out of the game.

“It was a great feeling knowing that all of the girls’ hard work paid off. They gave it their all, they came to practice every day and came out with fire. They did everything that was asked of them; they wanted it.”

Other contributors included Taylor Naughton, Jordan Schneider, Ava Knepper, Sara Block, Eleanor Ramsey, Nina Rogers, Claire Turner and Sadie Riester.

The Laguna 14-and-under girls, coached by Rob Carver, were warming up for their title game while watching the 12Us win. That proved motivational, said Struss, who will be a freshman at Laguna Beach High in the fall.

Struss fought back tears after she was asked what this team has meant to her.

“I never thought that I could have been so proud of this team,” she said. “Our team had something no other team had. Every single one of these girls is from Laguna Beach. We don’t pull girls from other cities like most other teams do … When that final buzzer went off and we won Junior Olympics, I’ve never been so proud of a group of girls in my life. We all battled throughout the whole thing.”

Other contributors included goalie Natasha Denny, Imani Clemons, Ava Houlahan, Rachael Carver, Genoa Rossi, Jessie Rose, Lela McCarroll, Emma Lineback, Emma Singer and Molly Renner.

Lineback had four goals in the title game, in which Laguna stormed to a 4-0 advantage. Renner scored twice and Carver, Rose and Singer each had single goals.

Carver said the play of Denny, who is just 12 years old and was playing up for Junior Olympics, was great in goal.

“She’s just got a maturity about her, to be hanging with high-achieving girls that are two years older than her,” Carver said. “She really handled herself, socially and athletically, very well with that group for the entire year. She just kept improving.”

The other local team to win a Junior Olympics title was Newport Beach Water Polo Club, which repeated as 10-and-under coed champions after a 6-5 victory over 680 Red in the title game.

“It was very special,” Newport coach Gabriel Buso Goncalves said. “We knew we would do well. The whole year, we were winning everything. We knew we would do well, but we knew it would not be easy. The final was very close, actually.”

Colt Bradley earned tournament MVP honors for Newport while Kaleb Wood, Cash Borgreve, Gabe Hurley, Shane Santoni, Weston Hartel, Carter Pence, Jack O’Brien, Declan Bartlett, John Whitelegge and Liam McCarthy also all contributed.

The SOCAL Black 18-and-under girls, which featured Corona del Mar High incoming senior goalie Erin Tharp and Newport Harbor incoming senior Jessica Lynch, fell to 680 Red, 7-6, in the title game.

Twitter: @mjszabo