COSTA MESA — When things become stagnant, the Costa Mesa High girls' water polo team suffers.
The Mustangs play best when they can count on the counterattack.
They did it in the second half Wednesday afternoon, playing together to ensure the Battle for the Bell game was theirs, 15-7, over cross-town rival Estancia at the Eagles' pool.
Costa Mesa (13-11, 3-1 in league) earns second place in the Orange Coast League, its only loss coming to champion Laguna Beach. Estancia (10-14, 2-2 in league) finishes third.
Both teams earn berths in the CIF Southern Section Division I playoffs; brackets will be released Sunday.
The Mustangs have more open water now that they have a 50-meter pool on campus. But even at Estancia they performed their best on the counterattack, swimming away from the Eagles after holding a tenuous 7-5 halftime lead.
Sophomore Kellie Thorsness had a game-high four goals and senior Sydney Rosello found the back of the cage three times, also drawing four exclusions. The Mustangs also spread the ball around; their seven first-half goals came from seven different players.
"When we get into just a set offense, they usually tend to try to rely on Sydney, Ashley [DeMarzo] or Kellie setting," Costa Mesa Coach Tim Postiff said. "They rely on that instead of movement and stuff coming out of the counter. That's how we were able to get a more balanced offense, with our counterattack."
The Mustangs, in the playoffs for the eighth time in Postiff's nine-year tenure, started strong. They took a 4-1 lead after the first quarter.
Coach Jennifer Broderick's Eagles, who will make their first postseason appearance in five years, are young. Team captain Kylie Carpenter is the only senior starter.
The Eagles still clawed back in the second quarter after going down, 6-2, on a counter goal from DeMarzo (two goals and two steals). Carpenter scored from the outside, then again on a penalty shot to cut the deficit in half.
After Mustangs' senior Nicole Tfaye (two goals and three steals) scored on a rebound goal, Estancia sophomore Ilene Umansky blasted a power-play goal with eight seconds left in the quarter. Umansky scored a pair of goals and now has 82 for the season, which leads the league and also the Newport-Mesa area.
Carpenter and Umansky have scored more than 80% of their team's goals this year. Carpenter called Umansky her "right-hand girl," a welcome addition after missing her freshman year due to injury.
"This is some of the best water polo that I've ever seen my team play," Carpenter said. "I'm really proud of them. Our team's really improved from last year … Last year I think we won two games and now our record has improved immensely. We've just all learned and grown up."
But Carpenter said the third quarter has typically been Estancia's worst quarter this year. She saw it happen again in the bell game, as Mesa pulled away by scoring the first three goals after halftime. Two came from Thorsness, giving Mesa a five-goal lead at 10-5 with 2:02 left in the quarter.
"As the season's progressed, we've learned to play more as a team," Rosello said. "Especially with this game being a rivalry game, everyone just put more effort in and stepped up to the plate."
Defensively, Mesa's Monica Folkerts and Tfaye helped limit the Eagles' chances. Estancia finished two for seven on the power play; Costa Mesa was three for five and also scored on a penalty shot.
Junior goalie Claudine Le finished with five saves for Mesa, which also received goals from Taylor Ives, Sarah Souza-Liebel and Alicia Rederscheid.
Carpenter scored three goals for Estancia, and sophomores Danielle Ridge and Valery Medina each added a goal. Sophomore goalie Alexis Paul, a lefty, made six saves and also had four steals.
Both teams can now prepare for the postseason. Postiff said he expects a tough draw in the first round, maybe playing a second-place team from the Channel League (Santa Barbara) or the Sunset League (Newport Harbor).
DeMarzo, who wants to play water polo in college, said she's looking at the University of Redlands, Cal State Northridge and Iona College. First, she'll help lead her team into CIF after a one-year absence.
"It's definitely a good feeling knowing that we have a secure spot in CIF," DeMarzo said. "Last year, we underestimated a lot of people and it obviously worked against us. This year, we just came out and we were hungry. We wanted it."