RANCHO SANTA MARGARITA — Maddie Schwartz made her return to game action Thursday for the Corona del Mar High girls' water polo team.
It turned out to be great timing for the Sea Kings.
They definitely needed their senior captain — and every single one of their other players, for that matter — to hold off Santa Margarita, 10-9, in a wild nonleague game at Santa Margarita.
The San Diego State-bound Schwartz hadn't played in nearly a month, after suffering a broken right index finger in practice Jan. 4. She said she's built up her rehabilitation, from swimming with her left arm to swimming with both arms and, more recently, shooting again.
The Sea Kings (13-5), ranked No. 5 in the CIF Southern Section Division I coaches' poll, didn't shoot as well in the second half against Santa Margarita (13-8), ranked No. 5 in Division II. They scored just once in the final 12-plus minutes, after senior Devon Greenlee's goal from about seven meters with 5:11 left in the third quarter.
Santa Margarita was down 8-5 at halftime but inched closer, with Morgan Martinez's penalty shot goal late in the third quarter then fellow sophomore Emily Loughlin's power-play strike with 5:14 left in the game.
CdM's lead was cut to one, at 10-9, and Greenlee and senior Lauren Marks had both fouled out. The action grew frantic, with CdM getting called for several offensive fouls and Santa Margarita trying to post up Loyola Marymount-bound senior Mackenzie Beck on the other end of the pool.
Beck is a problem for defenses. She's top 10 in Orange County in scoring with her 78 goals.
"They were one goal away," said CdM sophomore Cassidy Papa, who had a team-high three goals as well as two steals. "We just needed to take a deep breath and calm down. We shut down a couple of their timeout plays, which was key for us."
Junior Diana Murphy, who had two goals and a game-high four steals, stole the ball from Beck with about three minutes left. But after another CdM offensive foul, Beck got free on a counter with 2:30 to go.
CdM junior goalie Alex Musselman (12 saves) affected the shot enough that it went off the bar. Musselman then threw the ball to the corner of the pool before Beck could try for a rebound goal.
Musselman had a similar play in the first half, when Beck got open in front of the goal but her shot went off the right post.
"We created the opportunities," Santa Margarita Coach Kevin Ricks said. "The girls did a great job. Musselman is just so tough. That's what a good goalie does."
Beck tried to spin Saunders with less than two minutes to go, but lost possession on the good defensive play. Musselman stole an entry pass in the final minute, then easily stopped Tessa deRecat's shot right at her with seconds to go.
After that, CdM Coach Sam Bailey could breathe again. His team wasn't able to cruise, like it did in a 13-3 victory over Santa Margarita in the quarterfinals of the Holiday Cup.
"Santa Margarita made some outstanding adjustments and sort of threw us off our mark," Bailey said. "Ultimately, I was very proud of the way our girls handled those adjustments.
"I thought the girls played with a lot of heart," he added, noting the contributions of junior Victoria Pierotti and sophomore Genevieve Weed off the bench.
Saunders scored twice for the Sea Kings, and Marks and Ally McCormick also added goals. Loughlin led the Eagles with three goals, and freshman Haley Wan (two goals and three steals) and Beck (a goal and four steals) also were big contributors for the hosts.
CdM has now won nine of its last 10 matches.