Nicole Struss is a true utility player for the Laguna Beach High girls’ water polo team.
On a deep squad, the 5-foot-10 sophomore does not have a set role. She can play center, but is also valuable for her defense.
“She’s just going to attack open space,” Breakers coach Ethan Damato said. “Whether she’s listed as our true center or not, we just trust her to go in there and attack open water. We’re all used to that. We’ve got to do that by committee most of the time, but she’s definitely one of our main weapons in front of the cage.
“Utility is a great word for her. She also always has a matchup. Always. Whether she’s guarding a center, or attackers like Grace [Myers] or Sophie [Wallace of Corona del Mar] or Hannah Constandse [of Mater Dei], she always has a matchup. She does a lot for us … a lot of that blue-collar stuff. She’s got a big heart and everyone sees the desire that she plays with.”
The Breakers are deep this year, able to play at least a dozen field players in any given match. Struss’ versatility has her probably leading the team in minutes along with senior Claire Kelly, Damato said.
All Struss wants to do is help Laguna Beach (11-0), the top-ranked team in CIF Southern Section Division 1 and 2. Coming into Friday’s key 8-6 nonleague win at Foothill, she had 12 goals, eight assists and six steals this season.
“Whatever Ethan needs me to do, I’ll do,” she said. “We have so many different roles on this team that can change. Sometimes Imani [Clemons] is in and I’m not a center. Sometimes I defend, but then we also have Grace [Houlahan], who’s the starting defender. She’ll defend, but say she’s getting kicked out, then I’ll step into that role. Multiple girls can do different things.”
Damato also preaches community with the Breakers, and Struss is a good example of that. She started playing water polo at age 9, at the same time as her good friends Rachael Carver and Molly Renner. Carver’s father Rob, who played the sport at USC, was a big influence early on.
The three friends came up through the ranks and all earned playing time on varsity last year, with Struss first off the bench. She was fifth on the team with 30 goals scored and earned second-team All-CIF Southern Section Division 1 accolades.
This, after showing she could be a big player on the national stage as well. Struss was tournament MVP as the Laguna Beach 14-and-under girls won the USA Water Polo Junior Olympics in 2017. This past summer, Struss helped the SET 16-and-under girls also win the national title, with goalkeeper Quinn Winter earning tournament MVP accolades.
Struss, Renner and Carver continue making their mark. They are three of the eight sophomores on varsity for Laguna Beach this season, more than any other grade.
“It’s cool to see how far we’ve come,” Struss said. “We’ve been on the same teams all our lives. We know how each other play, and it’s nice having that little bit of comfort when you’re playing. It was a big deal, playing varsity as a freshman. The nerves were there and stuff. All of the girls were awesome last year, but it was nice knowing that we were there supporting each other, that we had each other’s backs.”
Struss had two assists and a steal in a 7-5 semifinal win over Orange Lutheran at the Bill Barnett Holiday Cup. She scored twice in the 9-8 title match win over Corona del Mar.
“As a sophomore, she’s definitely a leader on our team,” Damato said. “She’s just a grinder.”
As a starter, Struss has a bigger role than last year. But she said she doesn’t feel any more pressure.
The Breakers’ deep roster is one reason why. Coming into the match at Foothill, 10 different players had scored at least five goals this season, led by Renner and Morgan Van Alphen with 18 goals each.
“If I’m not having a good game, I know another teammate on the bench or another starter will have my back and step up,” Struss said. “It’s pretty cool how we have that. Every game, someone different will step up. It’s nice. You don’t have to rely on one person.”
Born: Feb. 12, 2003
Hometown: Laguna Beach
Height: 5 feet 10
Sport: Water polo
Coach: Ethan Damato
Favorite food: Burritos
Favorite movie: “Creed II”
Favorite athletic moment: Helping Laguna Beach win the USA Water Polo Junior Olympics 14-and-under title in 2017.