Time comes for Laguna

"Our Time."

It was a simple maxim the Laguna Beach boys' water polo team lived by throughout the course of the CIF Southern Section playoffs.

Those simple words are what inspired the Breakers, who were zoned in on one thing: winning a championship.

"It was our mantra," Laguna Coach Ethan Damato said. "The kids were focused on the playoffs and have been all season long. It's what drove this team."

Saturday at the William Woollett Jr. Aquatic Center in Irvine, it was Laguna's time and for the first time, the boys' water polo program can call itself CIF champion.

In a showdown between No. 1 Laguna Beach and No. 2 Damien, the Breakers led from start to finish what they set out to do all season: win a Division 3 title. They did so by posting an 11-9 victory against the Spartans.

It was the third meeting of the season between the teams, with each owning a win before Saturday's title match.

"We made history!," Laguna junior attacker Nicky Brunner exclaimed, thrusting both fists airborne while surrounded by his ecstatic teammates poolside after their milestone victory.

The Breakers (27-6) forced Damien into a game of catch-up from the start by jumping out to a 3-0 lead.

They held that three-goal advantage (4-1) after one quarter.

"I thought we really came to play tonight, from the opening whistle to the final horn," Damato said. "We jumped on them early and kept the lead.

"I thought Spencer Dodson and Nolan McConnell were spectacular. They had huge goals and carried us on their shoulders. Erik Henrikson had another outstanding game in goal and that amazing goal he scored was a great momentum builder for us. The entire team earned this. It's a great group of kids."

Damien (24-7) got off the first two shots of the game but Henrikson, who was spectacular with a 15-save performance in a Nov. 17 semifinal win over Mira Costa, blocked both shots taken by Spartans utility player Johnny Beal. With 2:18 left in the quarter, Laguna senior attacker Jack Clark scored off a nice pump fake. His shot glanced off the cross-bar and fluttered into the cage to make give Laguna a 1-0 lead.

Moments later, the left-handed McConnell scored on a power shot from the right side to push the lead to 2-0. Less than a minute later, Henrikson came up with another block and Dodson moved in from the left side to rip a shot past Damien goalie Kyle Garwick for a 3-0 lead.

It was Dodson's 74th goal of the season.

Beal was able to finally slip one past Henrikson with 46 seconds left in the quarter, but McConnell got the goal back just 12 seconds later when he ripped a shot into the net for his 141st goal of the season .

The Spartans managed to pull to within 4-3 four minutes into the second quarter behind goals by Beal and senior defender Eric Osterberg. Brunner then scored on a cross-cage lob to give Laguna a much-needed goal that built the lead to 5-3.

Junior utility Adam Sarrail scored with 10 seconds left in the quarter when his shot went off Henrikson's hand and into the net to pull the Spartans to within 5-4 at the half.

"They're a great team and they also came to play tonight, and we knew that even though we jumped out 4-1, that they'd make a run," Damato said of the Spartans. "We made some adjustments at halftime and started to press a little bit harder in the second half. I thought our guys did a great job defensively in the second half."

McConnell scored on a skip shot to increase Laguna's lead to 6-4 with 5:21 left in the third quarter. Dodson scored off a McConnell feed 20 seconds later and after a block by Henrikson on a shot by Damien's Aaron Avalos, McConnell scored at the other end on a cross-cage goal. That score allowed the Breakers to take an 8-6 lead.

Damien appeared to have gained some momentum late in the quarter when Sarrail scored on a shovel shot to narrow the deficit to 8-7 with 58 seconds left. The Spartans had another chance to draw even with 18 seconds left, but Austin Miller's shot was stopped by Henrikson.

Then, Henrikson delivered a huge dagger to the Spartans.

Holding the ball with the third-quarter clock ticking away its final seconds, Henrikson launched a length-of-the-pool shot toward the Damien goal. The junior's shot found its mark, hit off the right hand of Garwick and slowly floated into the goal for an improbable score.

Even Henrikson, who finished with 11 saves, looked dumbfounded toward his teammates, screaming in jubilant shock and disbelief.

His goal caused a major eruption among the Laguna faithful in the stands, not to mention a wild celebration among his teammates.

"I couldn't believe it...I still can't," Henrikson said. "It was really great to know that I was able to contribute a goal to help us win.

Henrikson scored a similar goal against Orange Coast League rival Costa Mesa earlier this month but, he said, "their keeper was out of the cage."

'This is an amazing feeling," he said of the championship. "We're living the dream. I'm on Cloud 9 right now. It's all really unbelievable."

But the game was far from over.

The Spartans were able to pull to within one a final time when Avalos scored from the left side less than a minute into the fourth quarter. Henrikson helped protect that 9-8 lead by recording three blocks over the next 1:40, two coming in a sequence on the same Damien possession three minutes into the quarter. From there, Dodson scored on a terrific lob pass from McConnell to up Laguna's lead to 10-8 with 3:23 to play.

The bang-bang play was a thing of beauty.

"There were three seconds left on the shot clock when Spencer went on a drive and I saw an opening for a brief moment and got the ball to him, and he delivered an unbelievable shot," McConnell said. "That goal gave us a big boost and the breathing room we needed."

The Breakers scored the clincher on another shot that beat the 30-second shot clock, this one delivered on a scoop shot by junior defender Samer Alkateb with one second to spare.

Alkateb's only goal of the game increased Laguna's advantage to 11-8 with 1:04 remaining.

Beal scored his third goal of the match when his shot barred in with 51 seconds to go. The Breakers then spread the pool and bled much of the remaining time.

Then, Laguna's massive pool party began.

"I'm just so ecstatic," said Dodson, Laguna's team captain who finished with three goals. "This year, this truly has been a special group of guys that bonded into a special team. Last year, about two weeks after we lost in the semifinals, we all went to work. We hit the weight room in the offseason and winning CIF is something that we have really worked hard to achieve.

"The unity on this team is unbelievable. Everyone is there for each other. This is special."

McConnell led all scorers with four goals.

"I've been dreaming of this since I was 6," said the junior utility player who is the last of a line of McConnell's to play boys' water polo at Laguna.

Brothers Nick and Nathan, the latter of whom was in attendance Saturday, preceded Nolan in a Laguna cap.

"I've been playing with a lot of my teammates since 10-and-unders," Nolan McConnell said. "It's an amazing group of guys."

The Laguna boys' water polo program was making its third appearance in a Southern Section final. The school's two previous finals teams, 1974 and 1996, finished runner-up to the title.

"I can't really put into words what this means," a soaking wet Damato said, after he and coaches George Trevor Lyle, Trevor Frimond and Jeremy Frimond, joined their players for a postgame celebration melee in the pool. "I would have belly-flopped into the pool for these guys. They are a great team."

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