Newport Harbor High junior Blake Jackson considers himself a superstitious guy.
He puts sunscreen all over his face as goalkeeper for the Sailors boys’ water polo team --- even when it’s a night game.
He said he has a lucky pair of boxer shorts, gifted to him by the family of senior teammate Jake Liechty several years back. The shorts have anchors on them, and Jackson will wear them on each game day. And he can give you details from games from earlier in the season, no problem.
“I write down all the stats after every game, and I try to remember everything,” Jackson said. “It’s just something that I do. I try to remember everything that happens.”
Jackson said he will eat at the same local restaurant with senior backup goalkeeper Trey Genova before every home game. And he will listen to the same type of aggressive hip-hop music to get pumped up.
Routine is big for Jackson. Newport Harbor coach Ross Sinclair would expect nothing less.
“He’s a funny kid,” Sinclair said. “He’s a goalie, and goalies are always a different breed. It’s not a bad thing. I just think spending time by themselves or with the same person for an extended period of time, you get lonely down there for half the game. I don’t know what it is, but I think every great goalie that I’ve ever been around has some sort of habit or mannerism to him. Blake definitely has that.”
The sunscreen on his face is easy to notice. For those who have followed the Sailors all season, though, so was Jackson’s propensity to step up in the big moment.
None was bigger than the CIF Southern Section Division 1 championship game against Harvard-Westlake on Nov. 10. The top-seeded Sailors were denied their first CIF championship since 2007, as the No. 2-seeded Wolverines used an inspired defensive effort to claim a 5-3 victory at Irvine’s Woollett Aquatics Center.
The result surprised Jackson, who said he had figured the Sailors would win CIF this year for several years now. Jackson started playing with junior teammates Reed Stemler, Ike Love and Tommy Kennedy when they were in 10-and-unders, and he figured this year they could lead Newport Harbor to glory.
Jackson is in two Advanced Placement classes and two International Baccalaureate classes this year at Harbor. A smart guy like him knows that the result of any one game can be tough to predict. What can be said with confidence is that Jackson stepped up on the big stage.
He had a season-high 17 saves against Harvard-Westlake, including seven in the fourth quarter, when Newport Harbor held the Wolverines scoreless.
“I was fired up in the fourth,” Jackson said. “I mean, up until the last 10 seconds, I thought we were going to win the game. Looking back at it, I wish I had 19 saves. I really thought we were going to win it.
“We had won every game that we kept a team to less than 10 [goals], before this game. I was fairly confident that if I could keep them to like eight, that we’d win the game. In my opinion, we have the best team of shooters in the country. I mean, they played great defense and they had our number that game.”
Three days earlier in the same pool, Jackson had 13 saves in a 9-6 Division 1 semifinal victory over Westlake Village Oaks Christian. It was clear that the defense, led by Jackson and set guard Stemler, was good enough to get the job done.
The Sailors concluded their season Saturday at the CIF State Southern California Regional Division I playoffs. After the CIF finals loss to Harvard-Westlake, Jackson said he didn’t take it extremely hard.
“After that game, I had some regrets … but I wasn’t necessarily sad,” he said. “Right after that, I was just hungry and waiting for next year. I think we’ll make it to the finals again.”
A returning Jackson will help in that pursuit. He filled big shoes this year following the graduation of last year’s Sunset League MVP, goalkeeper Max Sandberg, who now plays at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Jackson and the Sailors had a big summer. Missing two top players in Love and Makoto Kenney, they still made the finals of both the California High School State Championships and the Futures Super Finals tournament.
Jackson has benefited from working with Sailors assistant coach Chris Whitelegge, himself a star goalie for Newport Harbor as well as UC Santa Barbara.
“He’s always really enthusiastic to work,” Whitelegge said. ”Since Max left, we had big shoes to fill. Back in the winter, he just started going really hard. He’d ask me tons of questions, which was great. That showed me he was really invested, trying to fill that role.”
Even after all of the superstitions, Jackson is all business when the whistle blows.
Born: Oct. 6, 2001
Hometown: Newport Beach
Height: 6 feet 3
Weight: 175 pounds
Sport: Water polo
Coach: Ross Sinclair
Favorite food: Chicken
Favorite movie: “The Wolf of Wall Street”
Favorite athletic moment: Winning 29 games this season (through the CIF Southern Section Division 1 playoffs).