Three freshmen played significant roles on varsity last year for the Laguna Beach High girls’ water polo team.
None of them were named Emma Lineback.
Molly Renner, Nicole Struss and Rachael Carver all contributed for the Breakers on varsity, while Lineback played on the junior varsity team.
Lineback has been playing the sport since she was 10 after her father Dan, who played at San Clemente High, urged her to give it a try. She was a member of the 14-and-under Laguna Beach club team that won gold at the USA Water Polo Junior Olympics in the summer of 2017.
Especially as a left-hander, which is a hot commodity in water polo, Lineback may have felt that she also could carve out a role on varsity as a freshman. But it wasn’t in the cards.
“Obviously it would have been nice to be on varsity freshman year, but I was fine on JV,” she said. “I wasn’t so focused on being the best one or anything … I just wanted to put in the work. [Former Laguna Beach standout] Cara Borkovec was our coach, and I loved her. She made my first year really enjoyable.”
The Breakers certainly enjoyed having Lineback on varsity this year. Again, she didn’t start out in the spotlight. She has come off the bench all season, but she also has made a real difference for Laguna Beach.
Lineback scored all three of her goals in the second half of the Breakers’ epic 9-8 sudden-death overtime victory over Corona del Mar on Feb. 16 in the CIF Southern Section Division 1 title match at Irvine’s Woollett Aquatics Center. She helped Laguna Beach rally from a 4-1 halftime deficit.
Yet, this was hardly a performance that came out of nowhere. Three weeks earlier, she earned Most Outstanding Field Player honors at the Irvine Southern California Championships tournament and helped lead the Breakers to the title.
“She’s had a great season in general, but she’s really come on these last four weeks, I would say,” Breakers coach Ethan Damato said. “She’s come a long way this year, in her ability to play defense, in her ability to play center and shoot the ball and pass the ball. We’ve asked her to do a lot for us, and she’s come so far. She’s been one of our best players throughout the end of this year.”
At 5 feet 6, Lineback is not overly physically imposing, but she’s strong. Damato said that at first, he didn’t want her to play center, since left-handers are typically better suited to play on the perimeter. But her play this season has changed his mind, and she is only getting better.
A few different times this year, Lineback asked Damato for one-on-one film sessions so she could improve on her mistakes.
“I think I started applying coaching better as the season went on, and it got me more minutes in the pool,” she said. “A lot of times you think, ‘Oh, I was right for doing that,’ then you watch it on film and you’re like, ‘Oh, I see what they were saying.’ Instead of being stuck in the last play, I started being like, ‘OK, I know what I did, and I’m going to move on from it.’”
Laguna Beach played Orange Lutheran for the CIF Southern California Regional Division I title on Saturday night. Coming into the final day of the season, Lineback was fifth on the team in goals (36), assists (25) and steals (29). She led the team in exclusions drawn with 42.
Again, that is coming off the bench. On a deep team like the Breakers, though, that doesn’t hold a lot of significance.
What is significant is the way that Lineback helped the Breakers rally to win the biggest match of their season, and their fourth Division 1 title in six seasons.
“I think a lot of people thought, ‘Oh, no’ [at halftime],” Lineback said. “I was mad that we were down, but I think I turned it into energy. I was like, ‘We’re not losing.’ I think we all rallied after that and came back.
“The last few times we had played CdM, I hadn’t scored. [CdM goalkeeper] Maya [Avital] had shut me down every time. Going into the final, I was just like, ‘I’m not going to overthink it.’ I was just trying to focus on me and not Maya, trying to keep my confidence.”
That confidence has been well-earned for the rapidly improving lefty.
“You never know who’s going to step up for us, but I feel like we always know that someone’s going to step up,” Damato said. “For us, in the finals and a couple of really, really big moments this year, it was Emma Lineback.”
Born: Nov. 15, 2003
Hometown: Laguna Beach
Height: 5 feet 6
Sport: Water polo
Coach: Ethan Damato
Favorite food: Hamburger
Favorite movie: “Mama Mia”
Favorite athletic moment: Helping Laguna Beach win the CIF Southern Section Division 1 title.