Boys’ Water Polo Dream Team: Luca the leader for Sailors

Newport Harbor High senior Luca Cupido is the Dream Team Player of the Year.

To say that Luca Cupido provided memorable moments this year for the Newport Harbor High boys’ water polo team would be a bit of an understatement.

Cupido, a senior transfer from Italy, always seemed to be turning heads on the Sailors’ pool deck.

Two plays specifically come to mind. There was the penalty shot lob of Mater Dei’s 6-foot-8 senior goalkeeper McQuin Baron in the final of the South Coast Tournament. And there was the backhand shot from mid-tank that went in at the buzzer, accentuating the Sailors’ 13-7 win over Huntington Beach in a battle for first place in the Sunset League.

Flashy plays were no problem for Cupido. But, as impressive as they were, they weren’t what earned him the honor of being the 2013-14 Daily Pilot Dream Team Newport-Mesa Player of the Year.

Cupido, who is bound for Cal, gets the award for his leadership on Coach Robert Lynn’s young Sailors squad.

“I appreciated playing for this team, giving everything I could for my teammates,” Cupido said. “Playing with friends was important. You have to have fun and enjoy what you’re doing.”

Cupido certainly did that. Individual season scoring statistics were not available, but he was the Sailors’ leading scorer. He was the Sunset League MVP and a first-team All-CIF Southern Section Division 1 selection, after helping the Sailors (23-5) reach the semifinals before losing, 9-6, to eventual champion Harvard-Westlake.

Lynn said he believes Cupido was by far the best player in CIF. The Division 1 Player of the Year award went to Baron, but Lynn knows how much Cupido meant to his team.

Lynn, in his third year at Newport Harbor, is a two-time U.S. men’s senior national team Olympic assistant coach. Don’t be surprised if Cupido makes it to that stage as well. In the weeks following the high school season, Cupido, who has dual citizenship, was invited to train with Team USA.

Before the season started, the Sailors were thought to be rebuilding. But transfers Cupido and senior goalkeeper Massimo Navarretta made a big difference.

“He’s a great player and a great person,” Lynn said of Cupido. “Just his competitiveness” stood out to Lynn.

“The best thing about Luca was his ability to make friends,” Lynn said. “It was a team thing. He brought everyone with him ... he brought a desire to compete.”

Cupido will be gone from Newport Harbor next year, but that work ethic and competitive nature should stick with the returning Sailors. And in that sense, his brief three-month run with the Sailors was even more valuable.

“To me, it was a great season that I will never forget,” Cupido said.

Here’s a look at the other nine members of the 2014-14 Newport-Mesa Boys’ Water Polo Dream Team:

Matt Sherburne

Corona del Mar

Sherburne, a senior center and co-captain, was hard to handle at two meters. He led CdM (17-12) with 89 goals, helping the Sea Kings win a share of their 15th straight Pacific Coast League title and advance to the CIF Southern Section Division 1 quarterfinals, where CdM gave three-time defending champion Mater Dei a run for its money. Sherburne, the only returning varsity player from the year before, used an effective sweep shot. Yet Coach Barry O’Dea also praised his leadership out of the water. He was the Pacific Coast League MVP and a first-team All-CIF Southern Section Division 1 selection.

James Rydjeski

Costa Mesa

Two players from Laguna Beach shared the Orange Coast League MVP award, but Costa Mesa Coach Justin Taylor said he believed that his junior goalie deserved the honor. Rydjeski was a wall for the Mustangs (19-8), setting a program single-season record with 325 saves. His ability to rack up the saves he should — along with plenty of saves other goalies wouldn’t have made — helped Costa Mesa finish second in league and advance to the CIF Southern Section Division 2 playoffs. Rydjeski was a first-team All-Orange Coast League pick and also is a repeat Dream Team selection.

Arya Nakhjavani

Sage Hill

Teams game-planned to stop Nakhjavani through most of his career with the Lightning, but the senior center still got things done this year for Sage. He led Coach Tom Norton’s Lightning, who finished in the fourth in the Orange Coast League, with 65 goals in just 15 games. The average of more than four goals per contest led the league. The 6-foot-2 Nakhjavani, a first-team All-Orange Coast League selection, plans to play in college and should be a handful for teams at the next level as well. He is a three-time Dream Team selection.

Mitchell Mendoza

Newport Harbor

The lanky senior, headed to Stanford, grew a lot as a leader for the Sailors. He teamed with Cupido to provide a dynamic one-two scoring punch. Mendoza was a dangerous outside shooter as well as in six-on-five situations. He scored a game-high five goals in the Sailors’ 14-9 win over Dana Hills in the CIF Southern Section Division 1 quarterfinals. Defensively, he also improved and was effective at stealing the ball from his opponent. Mendoza was a first-team All-Sunset League and first-team All-CIF Division 1 selection.

Jay Neiger

Corona del Mar

Neiger, the Sea Kings’ second-leading scorer, was a reliable threat from the perimeter. O’Dea said Neiger, a senior driver, got more assertive as the season went along. He never got discouraged despite having some ups and downs during the season. He had a goal, an assist and two steals in CdM’s 9-8 win at Northwood on Nov. 4, which helped the Sea Kings clinch a share of the league title. Neiger was a first-team All-Pacific Coast League selection.

Quinn Smith

Costa Mesa

Smith stepped up into the leading scoring role vacated when Wyatt Ferris graduated. This year’s Mustangs were more balanced, but Smith still led the way with team-high totals of 65 goals, 31 assists and 76 steals. As importantly, Taylor called the strong junior possibly his best defensive field player as well. With Rydjeski and Smith as seniors next year, Costa Mesa will be a team to watch. Smith was a first-team All-Orange Coast League selection.

Massimo Navarretta

Newport Harbor

The Sailors’ senior goalie, a transfer from Foothill, was a big asset for Newport Harbor. He missed some time in the middle of the season with a groin injury — a particularly difficult injury for a goalie, who relies so much on his legs. But Navarretta hung in there. He had one of his best games of the season in the CIF semifinal loss to eventual champion Harvard-Westlake, making nine saves. Navarretta was a first-team all-Sunset League selection.

Jack Trush

Corona del Mar

Trush should be a leader next year for the Sea Kings as a senior, but he already was one as a junior co-captain this season. He was third on the team in scoring, but also showed his versatility and was one of the Sea Kings’ best passers and defenders as well. And his intensity also was a key for the Sea Kings. Trush joins his older brother Kyle, who now plays at UC Irvine and was a Dream Team selection last year. Jack Trush was a first-team All-Pacific Coast League selection.

Clay Davison

Newport Harbor

Davison provided stability for the Sailors. He was a deadly outside shooter for Newport Harbor and made opposing teams pay for focusing too much on Cupido or Mendoza. As a senior, look for Davison to step up and play an even bigger role next year. He was a first-team All-Sunset League selection.