IRVINE — Talking to Sarah Wilkey last summer at the USA Water Polo Junior Olympics, she had a sort of quiet confidence.
Wilkey was about to start her senior year. She was stepping into the starting goalie role for the Newport Harbor High varsity girls’ water polo team, an especially important position for the Sailors and their renowned press defense.
“I had to jump into it really quickly,” Wilkey said at the time. “I really don't have that much experience, so it's been kind of hard to adjust, but I think we're doing a good job all together.”
Wilkey has worked hard to become a known quantity. Just a year later, all eyes were on her on Sunday evening at a near-capacity Woollett Aquatics Center. She was the starting goalie for Huntington Beach Water Polo Club in the championship match of the girls’ 18-and-under platinum division at the USA Water Polo Junior Olympics.
Just “a good job” probably wasn’t going to get it done this time. Wilkey and her teammates had Kiley Neushul firing shots at them. They needed to play outstanding to beat Santa Barbara Water Club.
Wilkey turned 18 last week. She showed everyone in attendance her game is all grown up, too.
She had 11 saves and two steals as second-seeded Huntington Beach “Blue” stunned top-seeded Santa Barbara “A,” 6-5, to capture gold.
The UCLA-bound Wilkey has been known for making lists of goals to achieve. This one had to be way up there on the list. Santa Barbara featured several Dos Pueblos High players, including recent graduate Neushul, who have helped the Chargers win the last three CIF Southern Section Division I titles and 67 straight games.
“I’m ecstatic,” Wilkey said. “I’ve been wanting to win this ever since I started water polo.”
It was a huge achievement for Wilkey and Huntington Beach, which went a perfect 7-0 in the tournament. She started off the tournament sharing time in goal with La Habra graduate Morgan Klingfus, but with Klingfus nursing a hip injury Wilkey had the opportunity to step up.
She usually makes the most of those.
“She’s an absolute superstar,” said Huntington Beach Coach Natalie Benson, a former UCLA standout and two-time Olympian. “We are privileged to have her on our team. She fits in so well with us. This is her first year with us here, because with the Newport system they usually play through with the high school team. As seniors, they move on, so they can prepare their incoming classes for the next year.
“[Wilkey] was kind of displaced and homeless, so we took her in, and it’s been a lot of fun getting to know her. She’s a great person, as well as a great player.”
She continually showed it in the championship match, which was back and forth. The score was 3-3 at halftime but Huntington Beach took its first lead with 5:31 left in the third quarter, when Erica Beebe scored from the outside. Beebe added another goal with eight seconds left in the third to give Huntington Beach a 5-3 advantage.
Santa Barbara had several golden chances early in the fourth quarter, maintaining possession for an extended period of time and getting four shots off. Wilkey had two blocks – including one on a one-on-nobody – and Huntington Beach finally got out of the jam when Kodi Hill’s shot went just wide right.
“Huntington dodges a four-shooter, not just a bullet there,” said announcer Matt McLaren.
The Stanford-bound Neushul scored bar-in from mid-tank midway through the quarter, pulling Santa Barbara within a goal. Then Santa Barbara’s Kelsey O’Brien was on-target on a power play, tying the score.
But Huntington Beach’s Eike Daube scored the game-winner with 3:40 left. Huntington Beach dodged one last Santa Barbara opportunity on a field block.
HBWPC had plenty of those, as Santa Barbara went just one for nine on its power play.
Beebe, the former Long Beach Wilson standout who will join Wilkey at UCLA, was named MVP.
“I told all of them, I know this is a super coach cliché, but they’re all my MVP,” Benson said. “They really did this all as a team. They picked the perfect time to pick the best game they’ve ever played, collectively. Sarah really saved our butt numerous times in that game and others. She was also very deserving of the MVP, but I can only give one.”
It’s fine with Wilkey. She was all smiles after securing that gold medal. She had 10 saves in Sunday morning’s 6-4 semifinal win over Diablo.
“We gained confidence as we went, and then we just executed,” Wilkey said. “I’m so proud of [Beebe] and I’m so excited to have four more years with her.”
HBWPC gathered for a big team picture which included HBWPC “Orange” team member Kailyn Obenauer, another former Newport Harbor standout who helped the “Orange” team win first in the 18U gold division. She said she couldn’t be happier for Wilkey.
“She’s always had a really strong work ethic,” said the LMU-bound Obenauer. “She’s always pushed herself. She’s very self-disciplined; I’ve never met a harder worker than Sarah.
“She always sets goals for herself, and she always achieves them.”
A third recent Newport Harbor graduate, Catherine Carpenter (Stanford), scored a goal as SOCAL “Black” defeated Diablo, 7-5, for third place. SOCAL “Black” had lost to Santa Barbara, 10-6, in the other semifinal.
CdM Aquatics finished ninth in the 18U girls after defeating 680 Drivers, 7-5, Sunday at Santa Margarita. Cassidy Papa had team-highs of four goals and three steals. Diana Murphy added two goals and Genevieve Weed also scored. Alex Musselman made 11 saves.
The Newport Water Polo Foundation 18U girls finished 13th after defeating Los Angeles Water Polo Club “Red,” 7-4. Maddy McLaren scored twice and Presley Pender, Elissia Schilling, Carly Christian, Allyson Hall and Sophie Leveque all scored single goals.