During the final month of its 2010-11 season, the Laguna Beach girls' water polo team really had found its niche.
Playing relaxed, confident and showcasing great defense, the Breakers picked up big wins here and there, one of which was a first-time victory over Newport Harbor on Feb. 18.
On Wednesday night at the William Woollett Aquatics Center in Irvine, the Breakers were this close to recording one of the all-time great victories in school history.
All that stood between Laguna Beach and Dos Pueblos in their CIF Southern Section Division 1 semifinal showdown was a single goal — make that a "golden goal." It's what the Chargers used to escape with a 14-13 victory in a match filled with intense drama and a frantic finish that left both squads exhausted.
Tiera Schroeder skipped in the winning shot in the third overtime, the "golden goal" session, to give top-ranked Dos Pueblos (30-0) the win and send the Chargers onto Saturday's title game against Foothill.
Schroeder's goal also kept the Chargers' spectacular win streak alive. The streak now is 66 games.
On several instances, it appeared that fifth-ranked Laguna might halt that streak at 65. Breakers Coach Ethan Damato said the thought crossed his mind late in the game.
"I thought we were going to do it," said Damato, who in November guided the Laguna boys' water polo team to a CIF championship at the same pool site. "It was such a great game where both teams gave everything they had. Dos Pueblos is a great team. My hat's off to them.
"As for us, I'm just extremely proud of our girls. We played like there was nothing to lose and took them to the brink. I just can't say enough about how special this team is. We knew we could do this. Our girls found ways to make plays throughout the entire game. Even though I was very confident in our team, part of me had hoped that we wouldn't get crushed in the first quarter. Just the opposite happened. That's a tribute to the special group of girls we have."
The Breakers, who had lost two previous meetings (10-8, 13-6) to Dos Pueblos this year, put to rest any slight doubt Damato might have had about the start of Wednesday's game. Laguna bolted to a 3-0 lead on the stunned Chargers within the first 2:42 of the game. Dos Pueblos countered with two straight scores to close the gap, but a goal by Lexie del Toro gave Laguna a 4-2 lead after one quarter.
The Chargers tied the score at 4 on a goal by Kodi Hill with 3:54 left in the second quarter, but Laguna regained the lead 33 seconds later when Jessie Holechek drilled a penalty shot into the left corner. The lead grew to 6-4 when Yoshi Andersen scored on a fall-away shot. The Breakers took a 7-5 lead into the half when Andersen scored at the halftime buzzer in a six-on-five advantage.
It was a rare halftime deficit for Dos Pueblos, which did come back in the third quarter to pull into a 9-9 tie on Schroeder's no-look, back-handed shot with 30 seconds left in the quarter. The Chargers took their first lead of the game with 6:01 to left in regulation when Nicole Morelos scored after a Schroeder steal. Andersen scored from mid-pool range moments later to tie the score and the teams were tied again at 11 when Masson powered a shot from 7 meters with 1:49 to play.
The Chargers had a chance for the win at the end of regulation, but Kiley Neushul's shot was blocked in the hole by Andersen in the closing seconds.
"It was so wild at times," Holechek said. "We played so well and really put it all out there. Both teams had their chances in overtime and they hit the shot that counted at the end."
The teams ended the first three-minute overtime tied at 12, the Breakers getting the tying score on a goal when Holechek delivered on a cross pass from Riley Duncan with 1:04 left in the period. In the second three-minute overtime, Laguna took a 13-12 lead when Holechek rocketed a shot from 7 meters out. Dos Pueblos gained a player advantage when Kiley Neushul drew an exclusion on Anderson and Hill scored on the power play to tie the score with 43 seconds left.
Laguna got the ball back with 22 seconds left after Kiley Neushul was whistled for a push off. With seconds left, Masson launched a lob shot that glanced off the crossbar, dropped and floated freely in front of the mouth of the Dos Pueblos goal. Duncan was in position to put in the loose ball but couldn't get a shot off before the buzzer ended the overtime.
"That's how close we were," Damato said. "But it just wasn't one play. We got some bounces, and so did they."
In the third overtime — the "golden-goal" session (formerly known as sudden-death overtime) — Laguna dodged a pair of bullets early. First, goalie Edy Manetta, who was sensational in the net, got her 12th and final stop when she aptly blocked a shot by Jamie Neushul. Dos Pueblos retained possession and Kiley Neushul then drew an exclusion on Shusko, but the Chargers couldn't take advantage of the 6-5 situation as Hill's shot sailed up and over the frame.
Kiley Neushul came up with a steal moments later that led to Schroeder's winning shot.
The streak lived on.
For five-time Orange Coast League champion Laguna, a terrific season — its first in Division 1 — ended at 22-8.
"It's been an amazing year," Damato said. "This is the first time in school history that we've been in Division 1 and the first time in history that we beat Newport Harbor. We took second earlier this month here (Irvine) at the SoCal tournament, and we almost had another first here tonight. Lots of great things happened to this team. I couldn't be happier, or prouder, of this group than I am right now.
"There's some mixed emotions with our group. Some are crying not because they didn't win, but because it's all over. It's a great senior group that is leaving behind a great legacy."
Holechek and Andersen both scored four goals. Masson scored twice and del Toro once.
Holechek, one of those seniors and a team captain along with Jessie Shusko on the team, smiled brightly afterward.
"I'm always smiling," said the Princeton-bound Holechek, whose smile grew even wider. "It's been such an amazing year for this team. The thing I'm sad about is not because we lost, because we played so well. I'm sad because we've been playing together for a long time, and now it's over.
"A month ago, we started getting into a groove of sorts and took that emotion and momentum and used to it have a great finish to the season. We have a lot to be proud of because we played as a team. A team functions better than any individual, and we were a true team."