Laguna Beach High senior girls’ water polo goalkeeper Thea Walsh sent a telling text message last weekend following the Irvine Southern California Championships tournament.
Walsh and the Breakers had just lost to Goleta Dos Pueblos 8-6 in the title match at Woollett Aquatics Center, ending a run of four straight titles at the 32-team tournament. Walsh earned Most Outstanding Goalie accolades for the second straight year, but she said she was “indifferent” about the big honor.
“I was more upset,” Walsh said. “[The loss to Dos Pueblos] was what I was thinking about. I mean, I feel honored to have gotten the award. That’s special, but I think I was more focused on that last game and what we could have done, what I could have done.”
The Breakers, who had their winter formal dance that Saturday night, left the pool deck quickly following the loss. But what Walsh said she also did after the game was send the text to a member of the winning team, Dos Pueblos senior Ryann Neushul, who like Walsh is signed to play for Stanford next season. Neushul earned tournament Most Outstanding Field Player honors.
“I was like, ‘Hey, you played awesome,’” Walsh said. “I’m so excited to play with her next year. She’s just an awesome person, too.”
Walsh, the Daily Pilot High School Female Athlete of the Week, has that kind of caring personality. But make no mistake. Before she teams up with Neushul at Stanford, the priority is helping Laguna Beach (21-2) repeat as CIF Southern Section Division 1 champion.
The Chargers and Breakers, in that order, received the top two seeds for the Division 1 playoffs when the section released the brackets on Saturday morning. Walsh, the backbone of the Breakers defense, will be ready to go for the postseason as Laguna Beach aims for its fourth Division 1 title in five years.
“I’m so excited,” she said. “I just want to crush everyone, to be honest. I do not want to let a single goal in, if I can help it. I’m just going to give as much as I can, because I know that my teammates are going to as well, and [head coach] Ethan [Damato] and the rest of our coaches.”
Damato knows that with Walsh, he has one of the top goalkeepers around. She set a Breakers single-season record last season with 298 saves. This season, she has also set the Laguna single-game record with 19 saves in a 7-1 Holiday Cup semifinal win over Foothill on Dec. 30. Five days later, she broke her own record, making 20 saves against the Knights in a nonleague road game that the Breakers won 9-4.
Damato, in his 10th year at the helm, said the Holiday Cup semifinal was the best game he’s seen a high school girls’ water polo goalkeeper play.
“She was just spectacular,” he said. “She’s been a great leader for us. One of those things that people don’t really know about her, that we get to see every day, is just the way she works. She shows up every day. She’s obviously one of the best goalies in the country, and she’s still the hardest worker. For however long we’re training, from the start of the practice to the end of the practice, she’s on. When your best player is doing that, I think it raises the bar for everybody else as well.”
Walsh, who has 210 saves this season, is part of a Breakers senior class that includes six other members committed to or signed with NCAA programs. The list includes Evan Tingler (Harvard), Isabel Riches (Brown), Alana Evans (Princeton), Sophia Lucas (USC), Kyla Whitelock (Fresno State) and Danielle Borelli (McKendree University in Lebanon, Ill.).
Yet, the Breakers’ freshman class also has played a big role, with Molly Renner, Nicole Struss and Rachael Carver all receiving sizable varsity minutes. Grade level doesn’t mean anything on the team, Walsh said.
Lucas has a team-best 53 goals headed into the postseason, followed by senior Alex Peros (38 goals) and Tingler (34). But Renner and Struss are fourth and fifth on the team in goals, with 26 and 23 respectively.
“[The seniors] wanted to make sure that [the freshmen] felt welcome, that they’re on the same platform as us and not afraid of us,” Walsh said. “We want them to feel comfortable to talk to anyone.”
The Breakers are united, even as they have faced adversity this season. Their 44-game winning streak was ended by Mater Dei in a 6-5 nonleague road loss on Jan. 20. And, after mudslides caused the closure of Highway 101 and the postponement of the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions, Laguna Beach was unable to attend the prestigious tournament. The Breakers, in the midst of finals week at school, made the tough choice to stay home.
Still, Laguna Beach appears confident as it heads into the postseason. A good defense, which also includes Riches and a top one-on-one defender in Lucas, is a big reason why.
Walsh is quick to credit her teammates for their defensive efforts. In the semifinals of the Southern California Championships, the Breakers held Mater Dei to just two goals in a 9-2 win. But the player in goal undoubtedly plays a big role as well.
“She has that intimidation factor,” Damato said. “I think a lot of people know how hard it is to score on her, even if you are by yourself.”
Born: Nov. 10, 2000
Hometown: Laguna Beach
Height: 5 feet 9
Sport: Water polo
Coach: Ethan Damato
Favorite food: Dad’s lasagna
Favorite movie: “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows: Part 2”
Favorite athletic moment: Playing against Australia in the FINA Intercontinental tournament in May, 2017.
Week in review: Walsh made a total of 54 saves in five games for the Breakers in the Irvine Southern California Championships, earning tournament Most Outstanding Goalie honors for the second straight year.