Tommy Kennedy may seem destined to be playing water polo, but that didn’t stop the Newport Harbor High junior from almost walking away from the sport.
Kennedy’s father, Mike, played water polo at Costa Mesa High. His uncles, Eriks and Riki Krumins, each played water polo at Newport Harbor before going on to play at Cal, where Eriks was a two-time All-American in 1990-91.
Tommy, his older sister Emma and younger brother Nick all have played the sport too. Emma, who played goalkeeper for the Sailors girls’ team, quit early in her senior season last year to focus on academics. There was also another reason.
“She wasn’t really having that much fun anymore,” Tommy Kennedy said of Emma, now a freshman at UC Santa Barbara.
Tommy could relate. He said he considered quitting the sport as well after his sophomore season. Back then, he had a fairly limited role for the Sailors, as a left-hander who would substitute in for six-on-five possessions.
Kennedy has always been a gifted shooter. That was the first thing that Sailors coach Ross Sinclair heard about him from his age group coach, Stefano Ragosa. But he remained raw. Sinclair called his individual defense last year “a liability.”
“The hardest part is putting in the work,” Sinclair said. “You’ve got to grind, and there’s going to be ups and downs. I don’t know if that was necessarily a part of him at first.”
Kennedy, who has always been tall, grew nearly two inches this year to his current height of 6 feet 5. More than that, his love for the game grew and his attitude changed.
“I was like, ‘I’m going to stick around and I’m going to try harder,’” Kennedy said. “Ross pulled me aside and told me it had to come from me now. I had to invest in the team, I guess.”
Kennedy is now reaping the rewards. He moved into the starting lineup last weekend at the South Coast Tournament, helping the Sailors (17-1) win their host tournament for the first time since 2007. Kennedy is now a big weapon for Newport Harbor, the top-ranked team in CIF Southern Section Division 1 and 2 which is also 2-0 in the Surf League.
Kennedy had 26 goals, 22 assists and 17 steals through Friday. He and junior center Ike Love led the Sailors with four goals each in the South Coast Tournament final, a 13-11 win over top-seeded Studio City Harvard-Westlake on Sept. 22 at Newport Harbor High.
The coming out party for Kennedy actually happened a week earlier, at the Elite Eight tournament hosted by Harvard-Westlake. He scored the last two goals in a 13-11 pool-play win over Los Angeles Loyola, one of three wins the Sailors have over the Cubs this year. But Kennedy’s prowess really shined in the South Coast Tournament final.
Among his goals was a no-look shot, and a “donut” that went over the head of Wolverines junior goalie Nolan Krutonog.
“I’ve changed my fake, and it’s really helped with my shot,” Kennedy said. “Before, I was over-showing my arm, so I couldn’t shoot with any power. Now I’m keeping my arm farther back when I’m faking, so I can still shoot at any time.”
Sinclair knows that Kennedy’s emergence has energized the Sailors. He’s one of several good outside shooters including junior Makoto “Mo” Kenney, who was last year’s Daily Pilot Dream Team Player of the Year. Seniors like Jack White, Makana Sanita, Jake Liechty and Jonny Rimlinger also are more than capable. They make the defense pay if it drops on Newport Harbor’s centers, who are Love and sophomore Eli Liechty.
It’s a winning combination for Newport Harbor, which has won nine straight matches. Kennedy is part of a strong junior class, which also includes starting center defender Reed Stemler and goalkeeper Blake Jackson. But Kennedy is perhaps the one who has developed the most early in the season.
“We’ve been playing for each other more than last year,” he said. “Last year, it was sometimes like, ‘We need Mo to score.’ We used to force it to Mo, because he was the star, but now we have a really solid team on both sides. Anyone can finish when they need to.”
Sinclair said he’s never played with or coached a 6-5 lefty before. Kennedy’s potential remains high. He wants to help the Sailors reach the Division 1 title game, a place they haven’t been since 2009.
Kennedy can be glad that he stuck around. He’s looking forward to next year, when Nick Kennedy – also a left-hander – will be a freshman at Harbor.
For now, though, Tommy is the Kennedy making his mark for the top team in Southern California.
“He’s a very mellow kid, and that’s how he would play at times,” Sinclair said. “He just cruised by. Lately, I think he can see what kind of talent he has and how he can impact the game, and it’s exciting for him to go out there and do it. I don’t see an intimidated person. I just see him as a lot more confident and comfortable in the last couple of weeks, on both sides of the ball.
“He’s just throwing the ball completely different than how he was previously. Mechanically, it’s clicking. For us, it’s great. For some people, it’s scary.”
Born: Jan. 10, 2002
Hometown: Newport Beach
Height: 6 feet 5
Weight: 195 pounds
Sport: Water polo
Coach: Ross Sinclair
Favorite food: Pho
Favorite movie: The “Rocky” series
Favorite athletic moment: Scoring a “donut” shot over the Harvard-Westlake goalkeeper’s head in the final of the South Coast Tournament.
Week in review: Kennedy helped the Sailors win the South Coast Tournament for the first time since 2007. He had four goals in the final, a 13-11 win over top-seeded Harvard-Westlake on Sept. 22.