Pippa is clutch for Sea Kings

The Corona del Mar High girls' water polo team gets out of the pool during the fall season.

From time to time, the Sea Kings play dodgeball. It's a good team bonding exercise and brings out the competitiveness in some of the players.

Run for cover if Pippa Saunders has the ball.

"It's funny, you always have certain athletes out there who sort of love to step up in certain moments," CdM Coach Sam Bailey said. "Pippa's one of those athletes. She's fearless, as far as going for a loose ball, moving out of the way, very passionate about stepping up and trying to make the hit. You definitely see Pippa's leadership, her competitiveness."

The first-year coach never questions Saunders' leadership. The Daily Pilot Athlete of the Week has shown it time after time for the Sea Kings.

One of the more recent examples came in last weekend's Holiday Cup. Saunders scored the game-winning goal in overtime Saturday as CdM topped Laguna Beach in the semifinals, 8-7. Saunders had a fine game in the title match loss to Dos Pueblos as well, with a goal, two assists and two steals.

She has been here before. The junior has been a contributor on varsity since she was a freshman, often the first substitute off the bench on a team that advanced to the CIF Southern Section Division I title match.

"It was kind of intimidating," Saunders said of playing with teammates like Heather Van Hiel (now at UCLA), Victoria Kennedy and Kate Baldoni (Stanford) and Elise Molnar (Harvard). "We had some really insanely good seniors, and upperclassmen in general. They made me work hard. All the girls on the team were so good. You have to prove to yourself, 'I deserve to be here.' "

At times, it seemed like so much work. The team trains up to five hours a day during the season.

Saunders is more used to it now, even as she's kept busy by Advanced Placement biology and Spanish, as well as a tough trigonometry class. She excels, carrying a 4.15 grade-point average.

As a freshman, though?

"I remember freshman year I would be so tired," Saunders said. "I'd fall asleep in all my classes. But you get used to it."

Now Saunders is the veteran for Corona del Mar (5-4), which plays host to Foothill Friday. She started out playing soccer when she was little — including a stint as a Daily Pilot Cup-winning goalie for Andersen Elementary — but has now been playing water polo for more than seven years. The last three, she's been on the USA Water Polo Youth National Team.

Last April, Saunders was named the top player at the USA Water Polo Regional Championships in Claremont. That came on the heels of a successful high school season which earned her second-team All-CIF laurels.

Bailey trusts Saunders, who usually takes penalty shots for CdM. Opposing defenses, meanwhile, often make her the center of attention. But this year, Saunders has not always had to be a center. The Sea Kings have players like junior Diana Murphy and sophomore Cassidy Papa who can also play at two meters.

"I'm more of a utility player," Saunders said. "I'll guard, I'll post up, I'll set. I kind of do whatever the team needs me to do."

She's versatile, partially because she's such a good swimmer. She's a veteran of the Harbor View Swim Team coached by Ted Bandaruk and will again be one of CdM's best girls' swimmers when spring rolls around.

Last year, Saunders swam the breaststroke on a 200-yard medley relay team that also included Natalie Wong, Brynne Wong and Margot Money. The quartet finished seventh at the Division I finals in 1 minute, 49.15 seconds, the highest finish of any Newport-Mesa relay team.

CdM expects a much higher Division I water polo finish than seventh. Saunders has been stable in the pool, less so on the day last spring that she found out that former coach Aaron Chaney was resigning and moving back to Hawaii.

Saunders said she bawled and described it as "the saddest thing ever." When Chaney visited last week during the Holiday Cup, Saunders and her CdM teammates tried to get him to sit on the bench during the games.

Chaney declined but Bailey, who played and coached at UCLA and also assisted Chaney for three years at CdM from 2003-05, understands the sentiment.

"The types of emotions that were expressed during Coach [John] Wooden's memorial services and through the media after he passed, these girls feel the same way about Coach Chaney as Wooden's athletes felt about him," Bailey said. "The transition, absolutely it's going to be challenging. [Chaney] knows he's always got a spot on this pool deck. This is his program. There's no question about that."

Chaney left back for Hawaii on New Year's Day, no doubt impressed after CdM took second place in the Holiday Cup. Saunders knows CdM still has a good coaching staff with Bailey and former CdM and UCLA goalie Brittany Fullen, as well as Brian Mericle, who played at Esperanza and USC.

They know Saunders won't treat water polo like dodgeball. In the pool, the goal is to avoid the goalie, not hit her. But they also know Saunders will continue competing.

"She's clutch," Bailey said. "She's absolutely clutch, and she's all-in. I talk to parents about it, and parents don't necessarily understand it. [They say] 'Why is it fair that so and so is able to do this?' I feel like if you look at anything in life … not everybody is always going to give the same amount. There's certain people who naturally give everything they can, and they obviously achieve at the highest level because of it.

"It just so happens that Pippa is not only naturally gifted, but also an incredibly hard worker."


Pippa Saunders

Born: Jan. 22, 1994

Hometown: Newport Beach

Height: 5-foot-9

Sport: Water polo

Coach: Sam Bailey

Favorite food: "Honestly, I like everything. Water polo players eat everything."

Favorite movie: "Lords of Dogtown"

Favorite athletic moment: Playing in the CIF Southern Section Division I title match as a freshman.

Week in review: Scored the game-winning goal in overtime Dec. 31, helping CdM defeat Laguna Beach and reach the final of the Holiday Cup. Saunders scored eight goals in the four games.

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