Nicole Struss’ late goal lifts Laguna Beach girls’ water polo over CdM

The Laguna Beach High girls’ water polo team was never really challenged in the Orange Coast League, winning 12 straight undefeated league titles since 2006-07.

Corona del Mar could say the same about its dominance in the Pacific Coast League.

The four-team Surf League is a different beast. The Breakers and Sea Kings were expected to contend for the title, but each survived a one-goal game against Los Alamitos and Newport Harbor, respectively, on Tuesday.

Two days later, Laguna Beach and CdM did meet to conclude the first half of league play. This one also lived up to the hype.

Sophomore Nicole Struss scored with 15 seconds remaining as Laguna Beach claimed an 8-7 victory at CdM, moving into sole possession of first place.

Laguna Beach High goalkeeper Quinn Winter makes a point-blank stop on Corona del Mar's Sophie Wallace in a Surf League match Thursday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Laguna Beach (17-1, 3-0 in league), top-ranked in CIF Southern Section Division 1 and 2, then staved off a late CdM power play, as senior goalkeeper Quinn Winter saved Ella Abbott’s outside shot at the buzzer.

The Breakers handed CdM its first league loss since Jan. 10, 2001, when the Breakers beat the Sea Kings in a Pacific Coast League match at Laguna Beach. The Sea Kings had a 119-match league winning streak snapped.

Struss had three goals for Laguna Beach, which tied her for game-high honors with CdM senior Sophie Wallace. Her last goal came off a cross pass from Cici Stewart. CdM goalkeeper Maya Avital blocked Struss’ initial shot off the crossbar, but the ball came back to her and she stuck it in, extending the Breakers’ league winning streak to 51 matches.

“She’s all about hustle and grit and fight,” Laguna Beach coach Ethan Damato said. “That play just kind of exemplifies that with her.”

Damato said after the match that his adrenaline was “through the roof.” The match was physical, with 22 total exclusions and two penalty shots called. Laguna Beach finished four for eight on the power play, while CdM converted four of 11 chances.

No. 5 Corona del Mar (12-4, 2-1) led for much of the match, though it stayed close throughout. The Breakers took their first lead on Tea Poljak’s cross-cage lob at the third-quarter buzzer.

Morgan Van Alphen’s second goal, from six meters, gave the Breakers a 7-5 lead with 5:55 left in the fourth quarter. The Sea Kings came back on Wallace’s power-play goal, assisted by senior Carter Britt. Wallace then scored a rebound goal with 2:13 left, tying the score at 7-7.

Struss said she blamed herself for CdM’s game-tying goal, adding that she could have come back to get a steal with the ball in front of the goal. She made amends on offense.

She’s all about hustle and grit and fight. That play just kind of exemplifies that with her.

Ethan Damato, Laguna Beach High coach

“It comes down to the little things for us, and that’s the last piece of the puzzle,” CdM coach Justin Papa said. “Laguna is a team that has been good for a long time. They’re great because they do the little things well, and that’s what it takes to win championships. They make sure that when they have opportunities, they finish. I think that’s the last piece of the puzzle for us. When we have great opportunities, we have to make sure that we finish them.

“I think we left a lot of goals in the pool tonight. If we finish in front of the cage, we put ourselves in the position to win that game. But ultimately, that’s one of the higher level matchups in high school water polo that I’ve ever coached. I think that’s a potential playoff matchup … For us, we feel like we’ve been building into this moment for the past few years. I think it’s a great place for us to be, playing with the best team in the division. We’ll get there.”

Claire Kelly and Molly Renner also scored for Laguna Beach, which continues league play at Newport Harbor on Monday at 4 p.m.

Corona del Mar High's Carter Britt (6) shoots and scores during Thursday's Surf League match against Laguna Beach.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Britt, Abbott and Grace Myers added goals for CdM, which got 13 saves from Avital. The Sea Kings play Los Alamitos at 5:10 p.m. Monday at Newport Harbor.

Laguna Beach now controls its own destiny in the race for the first Surf League girls’ water polo title.

“We don’t have any easy games, except for maybe the first game of a tournament,” Struss said. “We’re always being challenged, which means we’re just going to improve even more than we would if we were playing mediocre teams. Six league games, and they’re all hard games. They’re all battles.”

Twitter: @mjszabo