The shot looked flashy, partially because there aren’t a lot of guys in high school boys’ water polo who could convert a backhand from six meters with such force.
It wasn’t just the flashy play. With the Sunset League title slipping away and Huntington Beach shot-blockers ready to stuff any normal shot, Newport Harbor High sophomore Makoto Kenney’s backhand off the foul was also the right play.
“I think it was calculated by him,” Sailors coach Ross Sinclair said. “It’s not a prayer.”
The Sailors wouldn’t have minded some divine intervention, trailing by a goal with three seconds left in regulation for the league title. Instead, Kenney got everyone on the pool deck buzzing with the game-tying goal. It was later shared by USA Water Polo on social media, providing a highlight of the Southern California boys’ water polo season.
Some of Kenney’s teachers at Newport Harbor, like English teacher Cori Ciok and math teacher Andres Dominguez, heard about the goal. Kenney was famous.
“They were surprised,” Kenney said. “I’m just like a sophomore, and they were like, ‘Oh, you’re pretty good, I guess.’ It was weird, but it was cool.”
Kenney ended up with five goals in the game, including two in overtime, as the Sailors pulled out a 12-11 win over the Oilers to capture their first league title since 2013.
Newport Harbor (23-5) came back for a 6-5 win over Santa Margarita on Thursday in the first round of the CIF Southern Section Division 1 playoffs. The No. 4-seeded Sailors will play top-seeded Mater Dei in the semifinals Wednesday night at 7 at Irvine’s Woollett Aquatics Center.
Kenney, the Daily Pilot Athlete of the Week, was a starter for the Sailors even last year as a freshman. He’s really emerged as a sophomore, though. Take the CIF opener against Santa Margarita as an example of his level of talent, even if it was far different from the Huntington Beach game.
Kenney was excluded twice in the first quarter and did not score, but he still racked up a team-best four steals, with an assist, two field blocks and two exclusions drawn. He did not come out of the game, but he also did not foul out.
“That was something we talked about in the offseason,” Sinclair said. “You might have games where you get shut down offensively, but how can you still impact the game? I think he’s taken that and makes an effort to go out and draw some exclusions, make the extra pass, make some nice steals and field blocks and have that impact.
“To be a truly complete superstar, so to say, I think being a dominant perimeter defender would be the next thing he needs to focus on. What else can he do what to master his craft? He doesn’t take criticism as a negative. It’s like, ‘All right, you challenge me to be a defender, I’m going to go and become a better defender.’ He’s done a good job of that.”
Even on a senior-heavy team, Kenney is a leader, more letting his play speak for itself than anything he says vocally. He’s a strong kid, one who was featured in the Daily Pilot last year as a freshman for both his game and his story. Kenney lost his dad Jimmy to lung cancer in July 2014.
Waka Kenney watches her only child continue to grow. At 6 feet 1, he’s maybe an inch taller than last year, and also stronger.
“I think so,” Makoto Kenney said with a laugh. “I hope.”
The Sailors have more than hope deep in games. They have belief. Newport Harbor is 6-2 in one-goal games this season, which includes a perfect 5-0 record in games decided in sudden-death overtime.
Kenney has scored two of the five game-winners, at Harvard-Westlake in a nonleague game Sept. 19 and against CdM in the third-place game of the S&R Sport Cup on Oct. 7. Three other Sailors players also have game-winning goals: Jack White against Santa Margarita, Ryan Brosnan against Los Angeles Loyola and John Rankin against Huntington Beach for the league title.
“We just want to come out hard in the overtime,” Kenney said. “We train a lot for tight moments like that, close moments. I think we stay composed throughout the game, so when it comes to that point, we know how to handle it.”
Kenney has shown that he can handle the big moments. The difference from his freshman year is not as much stress.
“I think I just play more freely now,” he said.
Free enough to whip a backhand shot from six meters with the game on the line.
Born: Nov. 23, 2001
Hometown: Costa Mesa
Height: 6 feet 1
Weight: 200 pounds
Sport: Water polo
Coach: Ross Sinclair
Favorite food: Sushi
Favorite movie: “Grown Ups”
Favorite athletic moment: Helping Newport Harbor beat Huntington Beach to win the Sunset League title this year.