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Laguna Beach girls’ water polo downs Foothill to return to CIF Division 1 final

The Laguna Beach High girls’ water polo team has just one loss this season, but the Breakers had to avenge it Wednesday night to advance to the CIF Southern Section Division 1 title match.

A 4-3 loss to Foothill in the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions semifinals on Jan. 12 is the only stain on the Breakers’ season. Top-seeded Laguna Beach matched up with the No. 4 Knights again at Woollett Aquatics Center in the Division 1 semifinals.

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“Our whole mentality the entire week was coming out and proving that we were the better team, that we were the team that deserved to win,” Laguna Beach junior defender Grace Houlahan said.

Laguna Beach looked the part on a rainy night, scoring a convincing 9-6 victory to advance to Saturday’s title match. The Breakers (28-1), the Surf League champions, will play league runner-up Corona del Mar (19-7) at a time to be announced.

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Laguna Beach, which was upset in the quarterfinals last year by eventual champion Santa Barbara San Marcos, will be going for its fourth Division 1 title in six years.

The Breakers also will be trying to go 4-0 against CdM this season. They used a balanced effort to beat Foothill (21-7), the Crestview League champion.

Junior Tea Poljak had three goals and two assists and sophomore Nicole Struss scored twice for Laguna Beach, which opened up a 5-2 halftime lead despite failing to convert on all six of its six-on-five chances in the first half.

Laguna Beach High coach Ethan Damato high-fives Emma Lineback after beating Foothill 9-6 in a CIF Southern Section Division 1 semifinal playoff match on Wednesday.
Laguna Beach High coach Ethan Damato high-fives Emma Lineback after beating Foothill 9-6 in a CIF Southern Section Division 1 semifinal playoff match on Wednesday. (Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“It was great to get some natural goals,” Breakers coach Ethan Damato said. “I thought they did a good job on five-on-six. They always do. I thought our five-on-six was good tonight as well. In playoff times, it’s hard to score goals on six-on-five. Nerves are high, and usually teams have an idea of what you’re doing at that point in the season. I thought we got some good looks and we scored some big ones that we needed.

“It was good to get a good start against a tough team. Foothill’s really good in those drag-it-out games where they can keep it low scoring. We wanted to try to get out and get ahead, and that was nice to be able to do today.”

Laguna Beach extended its lead to as much as 9-3 early in the fourth quarter, when Struss scored her second goal, assisted by Emma Lineback.

Houlahan, Morgan Van Alphen, Cici Stewart and Molly Renner also scored for the Breakers, who got nine saves from senior goalkeeper Quinn Winter.

Among Poljak’s goals was a backhand from two meters midway through the third quarter. That goal had her teammates grinning, though maybe not Damato. The transfer from Mater Dei, who lost in the Division 1 semifinals with the Monarchs last year, was determined to get to her first title match.

“I looked at Ethan and he was looking like he was going to pull out his hair, but then he stopped,” Poljak said. “I wasn’t expecting to [take the shot] either. At the last second, [my defender] left my arm open and she was heavy on my left side, so I had my turn around. My dad taught me that when I was like 12.”

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