NEWPORT BEACH — The atmosphere was electric at the Sunset League water polo showcase Wednesday night at Newport Harbor High.
The best game, Newport Harbor against Los Alamitos, was saved for last. A line formed at the pool gate as the 7:10 p.m. start time approached, turning the crowd standing-room only.
By the end of the game, even some of those who had seats rose up to applaud the Sailors.
Newport Harbor came out strong and didn't let up, and now the team's grasp on the league title appears to be just as strong. The Sailors turned what was expected to be another nail-biter into a 14-5 blowout win.
The Sailors (16-2, 3-0 in league) avenged a 10-9 overtime loss to the Griffins in the final of the S&R Sport Cup 11 days earlier. More importantly, they dealt Los Al (14-5, 2-1) its first league loss and put themselves in the driver's seat to win league with victories over Edison and Marina the next two weeks.
"It was a great defensive effort by everybody, it wasn't just individuals," Newport Harbor senior utility player Andrew Duhoux said. "I was just really impressed. We rallied. After last Wednesday, with our Huntington Beach game [a narrow 4-3 win], we've really been rallying back against El Toro and Laguna Beach too. We kind of wanted to make a little statement here. I'm pretty sure we did that."
All of this was well and good for the Sailors, but few people in the stands could have thought the margin would be so large. Then again, that's the way Newport Harbor has been playing defense lately.
Senior goalie Chris Whitelegge was a wall and made 17 saves. Duhoux and sophomore Dan Stevens put the clamps on the Griffins' top two goal-scorers, senior center Joe Ferretti and sophomore Chandler Jarrels, holding them to a goal apiece.
At one point in the fourth quarter, the Sailors led, 13-2.
"We did a great job keeping our matchups, helping each other out and reacting to the ball really quickly," Newport Harbor Coach Jason Lynch said. "I'm really proud of them for their effort. They played a great game.
"[Whitelegge] just did an outstanding job. That's the anchor of it all. We talked a lot last year after CIF finals, how it wasn't his best performance and coming back strong. He's really rallied, as far his mental toughness and his fortitude, to really want to come back and make a point this year."
Junior Farrel South also showed the complete package again for the Sailors, ranked No. 4 in Division I. He scored six goals against No. 3 Los Al, just as he did in the S&R championship game. The goal that had everybody gasping in disbelief was the one from set late in the third quarter, where he beat a crashing triple-team to score on a lightning-fast backhander.
South was also impressed by his team's defensive prowess.
"I thought our effort was insane," South said. "With the defense from Andrew Duhoux and Dan Stevens on their two best players, and all the help from Davy [Jorth] and Ryan [Fowler] and Preston [Lee]? I thought that was just insane."
South shouldn't shortchange his own effort. Defensively, Lynch also stuck South (four steals) on Los Al lefty Austin Ringheim, who had scored five goals in the teams' first meeting. On Wednesday night, Ringheim was held scoreless.
"[South] really has come a long way as far as stepping up in big games," Lynch said. "I told him, 'When it's time to play, the best players play,' and he's definitely been doing that for us."
Newport Harbor started fast, building a 5-1 lead after a quarter after Jorth's counterattack goal. It was one of three counter goals for the Sailors in the first quarter.
Fowler, Duhoux and Stevens had two goals each and combined for four steals. Lee, an emerging sophomore who has been starting the last several games, had a goal and two steals. Jorth had a goal as well as a couple nice field blocks to start counterattacks.
The Sailors kept pushing and Los Alamitos Coach Dave Carlson said his Griffins lost confidence. After Ferretti scored his only goal with 4:10 left in the first quarter, the Griffins scored just once over a span of more than 23 minutes, until Jarrels scored his only goal with 1:47 left in the game.
Carlson credited Whitelegge.
"I thought we had more looks at the beginning of the game than Newport did, but Newport finished theirs," Carlson said. "I thought we had good looks and [Whitelegge] just made really nice plays … You've got to be able to finish, and I'd say the main reason we weren't finishing was because their goalie was just on. Momentum is a big thing in sports, and they had momentum the whole game."
It's a momentum the Sailors hope to keep going forward. They play at rival Corona del Mar on Saturday night.
Newport Harbor 14, Los Alamitos 5
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Los Al 1 – 1 – 0 – 3 — 5
Newport 5 – 3 – 1 – 5 — 14
LA – Reynolds 2, Blake 1, Ferretti 1, Jarrels 1. Saves – Patterson 8.
NH – South 6, Stevens 2, Fowler 2, Duhoux 2, Jorth 1, Lee 1. Saves – Whitelegge 17.