Sophie Wallace spent four years as a key contributor for the Corona del Mar High girls’ water polo team.
The first three of those years each ended in the same spot of the CIF Southern Section Division 1 playoffs.
CdM fell in the quarterfinals each time. Wallace began to wonder if she would ever make it to play under the lights at Irvine’s Woollett Aquatics Center in the semifinals.
Wallace’s senior year provided one last opportunity, though the Sea Kings (20-9) had an up-and-down season and were ranked sixth in Division 1 headed into the playoffs.
But this was Wallace’s time.
The Stanford-bound attacker scored the go-ahead goal in the fourth quarter as CdM upset No. 3-seeded Goleta Dos Pueblos 7-5 in the quarterfinals. She then made the most of her semifinal appearance, with a key field block on defense before scoring the eventual game-winning goal in an 8-7 upset over Orange Lutheran.
For her heroics and helping CdM make its first Division 1 final since 2013, Wallace is the 2018-19 Daily Pilot Dream Team Girls’ Water Polo Player of the Year.
Part of a senior-laden group that included Michigan-bound co-captains Ella Abbott and Carter Britt and UCLA-bound center Layne Anzaldo, Wallace had a team-best 64 goals, 19 assists and 35 steals this season. A first-team All-Surf League selection, she was named the CIF Southern Section Division 1 Player of the Year.
“I think our biggest thing was just making our senior year the best and most fun one yet, and I think we did accomplish both of those things,” said Wallace, who made the Dream Team first team for the third time. “I’ve never been to a CIF semifinal throughout my four years. We always lost in the quarters, so I think winning that quarterfinal up in Santa Barbara was a huge motivation and really surreal, to know that we were going on to the semis. Getting to the final, I think we pulled off the senior season that we all wanted to.”
The Sea Kings nearly won the title — upsetting the top three seeds in the process — but top-seeded Laguna Beach prevailed 9-8 in sudden-death overtime in the Division 1 title match. It was the Breakers’ fourth win over CdM on the season, by a combined five goals.
Though the loss was heartbreaking, Wallace and her teammates could feel that they had lived up to their potential. Wallace, known for her lob shot, could still feel that her final year was a slam dunk.
“I think everyone when they’re young thinks about growing up and playing at Woollett before they go off to the next step in their career,” CdM coach Justin Papa said. “Having success in those big moments, not just being there but thriving, I think she lived that dream. She thrived in that giant moment, the biggest moment of her water polo career so far. That’s what great players do. They step up when their team needs them to, and that’s what she did.
“[The win over Orange Lutheran] was her first semifinal, and to have that moment and not be scared of that moment is very Sophie. She didn’t shrivel up and let that pressure overcome her. She stepped up and thrived instead. I think that’s why she’s had so much success in her water polo career. That’s why she’s going to Stanford.”
The graduation of Wallace, a three-year starter who was the first player off the bench when she was a freshman, means the Sea Kings will be in transition. Sophomore Grace Myers, who shared time with Wallace on the “one-two” side this season, will be a leader in the future.
Wallace can’t wait to watch.
“I’ve had a great four years here,” she said. “It’s weird kind of sitting from the CdM alumni position, wondering what the next group of girls and the next generation is going to do with it. But it’s really cool to see all the growth that we’ve made as a team, and individual players.
“It’s definitely hard to lose in the final in sudden death my senior year, but I think the journey we took throughout CIF meant a lot more to me as a player and a person than the final game.”
COACH OF THE YEAR
The Breakers (31-2) won their fourth CIF Southern Section Division 1 title in six years, but their first without an Olympian — Mackenzie and/or Aria Fischer – on the roster. Laguna Beach was top-ranked all season and won two of the three major in-season tournaments, the Holiday Cup and the Irvine Southern California Championships, but this was not the Breakers team that would typically roll over opponents. Instead, Laguna Beach finished 7-1 in one-goal games. Credit Damato, named the CIF Southern Section Division 1 Coach of the Year, for again building a cohesive unit, which is a trademark of his girls’ teams during his time coaching at his alma mater.
UTIL | Laguna Beach | So.
Struss was a valuable all-around contributor for the Breakers and shined during Surf League competition, which was tough with Corona del Mar, Newport Harbor and Los Alamitos all in the mix. Struss was the Surf League MVP and led the Breakers in goals during league, Damato said. A first-team All-CIF Southern Section Division 1 selection, she finished the season with 44 goals, 26 assists and 28 steals.
DEF | Corona del Mar | Jr.
Peterson was a valuable center defender for the Sea Kings but also proved more versatile than that. She showed a high water polo IQ and scored several big goals over the course of the season, including the game winner in sudden death in CdM’s 6-5 victory over rival Newport Harbor during the first round of Surf League play. Peterson, a second-team All-Surf League selection, finished the season with 20 goals, 14 assists and 30 steals.
DEF | Newport Harbor | Sr.
The Sailors, coming off the CIF Southern Section Division 2 title last year, competed well in the Surf League and moved up to the Division 1 playoffs this year. Banta, a transfer from Mater Dei widely regarded as one of the best center defenders in CIF, was a big reason why. The UCLA-bound Banta helped Newport Harbor (18-12) finish seventh in Division 1, including a highlight defensive game in a 5-3 loss to No. 2-seeded Orange Lutheran in the quarterfinals. Banta, who had 37 field blocks and 49 steals, was a first-team All-Surf League and first-team All-CIF Southern Section Division 1 selection.
ATT | Costa Mesa | Sr.
Rice earned Orange Coast League MVP honors and closed out her four-year varsity career in style, helping the Mustangs (15-13) win their first league title since winning the Golden West League in 2004. A feisty presence despite her 5-foot-1 frame, she tallied team-best totals of 83 goals, 60 assists and 76 steals and led Costa Mesa to the second round of the CIF Southern Section Division 5 playoffs before losing 12-7 to top-seeded Moreno Valley Valley View.
ATT | Laguna Beach | So.
Lineback was valuable to the Breakers because she was a left-hander, but that wasn’t the only reason. She would often play center and by the end of the season, was certainly one of Laguna Beach’s top field players. She earned Most Outstanding Field Player honors at the Irvine Southern California Championships and also played big with three second-half goals in the CIF Southern Section Division 1 title match. Lineback also had a key steal that led to a penalty shot late in Laguna Beach’s 6-4 win over CdM in the second round of league, clinching the outright Surf League title. She was a first-team All-CIF Southern Section Division 1 selection.
ATT | Laguna Beach | Jr.
Poljak transferred from Mater Dei and was quickly welcomed in by the Breakers. Damato said in late December that she had the tools to be the best shooter in the country. Less than two months later, Poljak scored the game-winning goal from eight meters in sudden death overtime to lift Laguna Beach over CdM for the CIF Southern Section Division 1 title. Poljak tied for the Breakers team lead with 48 goals, led the Breakers in assists (38) and was second in steals (35). She was a first-team All-Surf League and first-team All-CIF Southern Section Division 1 selection.
GK | Corona del Mar | Jr.
She had to wait her turn, as Heidi Ritner and Erin Tharp starred before her in goal for CdM. But in her first season as the Sea Kings’ starting goalie, the lanky 6-foot-2 Avital earned a reputation as perhaps the best goalie in the CIF Southern Section. A first-team All-Surf League and first-team All-CIF Southern Section Division 1 honoree, she made 215 saves this season, including 18 in the CIF Southern Section Division 1 title match.
Position, Name, School, Year
ATT Molly Renner, Laguna Beach, So.
ATT Grace Myers, Corona del Mar, So.
UTIL Shanna Davidson, Huntington Beach, Fr.
ATT Taylor Smith, Newport Harbor, Fr.
ATT Ella Abbott, Corona del Mar, Sr.
ATT Natalie Valentin, Los Amigos, Sr.
GK Quinn Winter, Laguna Beach, Sr.
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