Ross Sinclair was an assistant coach of the Newport Harbor High boys’ water polo team in 2009, when the Sailors seemed to be perennial contenders for the CIF Southern Section Division 1 title.
That was no longer the case when Sinclair came back and took over at his alma mater in 2015. Private schools like Mater Dei and Studio City Harvard-Westlake had risen to power.
In his fourth season in charge, Sinclair has his first four-year senior group. The Sailors are much more than just in the conversation.
Top-seeded Newport Harbor advanced to its first Division 1 final since that 2009 season on Wednesday night, after a 9-6 victory over No. 4 Westlake Village Oaks Christian at Irvine’s Woollett Aquatics Center.
“We’ve been working together and playing together since we were 8 years old,” said Newport Harbor senior Jake Liechty, who had a goal and two assists in the semifinals. “To be able to play together with the same group of guys and see us do great things, it’s awesome.”
Newport Harbor will play for its 13th CIF title, and first since 2007, on Saturday. The Sailors (29-1) face No. 2 Harvard-Westlake (24-5) in the title match back at Woollett, at a time to be determined. The Wolverines beat Los Angeles Loyola 7-6 in the semifinals on Wednesday.
Newport Harbor, which has won 21 straight matches, is the favorite to take home the championship plaque for good reason.
“They’re a hell of a team,” Oaks Christian coach Jack Kocur said after the Sailors denied the Lions their second straight Division 1 final appearance. “They’re so well-balanced. I think they’re the most well-balanced team out there. They have two centers [Ike Love and Eli Liechty], they have defenders that they need, and they have the left-side and the right-side players.
“Look, Ross is doing a great job with his players. He’s doing a good job developing players at a younger level that go straight into his program. It’s a unique environment that you can’t find anywhere in the country. I hand it to him for his leadership; I hand it to him for bringing the culture back to Newport that has been missed for so many years.”
Illustrating Kocur’s point about balance, Sailors junior defender Reed Stemler had a season-high three goals in the win. Junior left-hander Tommy Kennedy scored twice, while Love, senior Makana Sanita and junior Makoto Kenney also scored.
Junior goalkeeper Blake Jackson anchored the Sailors’ defense with 12 saves, while Sinclair complimented senior Jack White on his perimeter defense.
“We watched enough film to realize that we just need to press them [on defense],” Stemler said. “Most teams can’t really deal with a strong press like us. Every single player individually is great over their hips, controlling their man. Our defense is what we can fall back on.”
Newport Harbor never trailed in its first meeting against Oaks Christian (18-10) this season. The score was tied 2-2 at halftime, but Kenney scored a six-on-five goal in the third quarter before Kennedy’s strike from the right wing doubled the lead.
The Lions pulled within 5-4 early in the fourth quarter when junior Alika Naone struck on the six-on-five, one of his team-high three goals. Oaks Christian got the man-advantage after Kennedy mistakenly went for the steal after being called for a foul.
Kennedy responded by scoring with 4:56 remaining, the first of three straight goals that also included strikes from Sanita and Jake Liechty.
“Our theme for this season has been staying in the moment,” Sinclair said, “and I thought [Kennedy] did a really good job of bouncing back.”