Yokota heating up for Newport Harbor

Eight years ago Koby Yokota made a cross-country trip that would, in some ways, change his life.

Yokota and his mother, Kelly Pedersen, moved from the East Coast to the West Coast.

They moved from one Newport to another. Newport, R.I. is a lot different than Newport Beach.

"I've made a lot of friends in the time I've been here, and I love how it's warm all the time," Yokota said. "But I also really miss the snow, and I love the cold. It could go either way."

Yokota now lives with his mom and step-dad, Jon. He said he still gets back east every few months to visit his father, Bob, who now lives in New Hampshire with three half-sisters.

But soon after Yokota settled in Southern California, something else happened that would change his life.

He started playing water polo.

Eventually he got a look as a goalie.

"They were just kind of like, 'Oh, you're kind of a big kid, why don't you try it out?'" Yokota recalled. "I went in and I blocked some, so they kept me in there. I've just been doing it ever since."

It's as simple as that for Yokota, all 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds of him. He's now a senior at Newport Harbor High.

Yokota's game matches that big frame. The Daily Pilot Athlete of the Week showed it last weekend at the S&R Sport Cup, where he made 11 saves in the championship match as Newport Harbor defeated rival Corona del Mar, 9-7, at Irvine's Woollett Aquatics Center.

It was Yokota's second-highest total of the season. In his first year as varsity starter, he continues to improve for the Sailors (14-1), ranked No. 2 in the CIF Southern Section Division I coaches' poll.

Coach Robert Lynn saw Yokota deny CdM early in that championship match. Twice in the first quarter the Sea Kings had six-on-five chances, but Yokota made the block each time. At halftime CdM had scored just one goal.

Both player and coach called it Yokota's best game of the two-day tournament.

"The first half he held them real well," Lynn said. "That took a lot of wind out of their sails."

For Yokota it has been a journey to this point, this moment where it's his time to shine on the varsity team. Three years ago he was part of a 14-and-under Newport Water Polo Foundation team, coached by Corey Delahunt, that won the San Diego County Cup. Yokota made the all-tournament team after helping NWPF defeat club powerhouse SoCal in sudden-death overtime in the tournament final.

Yokota played frosh-soph his freshman year at Harbor before getting moved up to varsity his sophomore year. Last year he backed up Chris Whitelegge, now at UC Santa Barbara, in goal.

"It wasn't so much that he was teaching me," said Yokota of Whitelegge, last year's Sunset League MVP. "But I was kind of observing how he blocked. He's smaller than me, so I got to see how he reacts quicker, and I tried to improve my own style. It was a good experience, I think, to watch him play and have him as my friend."

Yokota had to watch from the bench as the Sailors fell short of their CIF goals, losing in the quarterfinals. This year he's the one in-between the pipes, and he said it feels good.

"It was more excitement than being nervous," Yokota said. "I mean, I'm not playing with anyone who I haven't played with before. I know all the guys on my starting team — I know how they play — and I was really excited to finally be in the cage blocking for them."

Yokota wants to keep improving. He plans to play in college. At Newport he now works with the Sailors' goalie coach, Jacob McIntosh, who played at Long Beach Wilson and Cal.

It is a long way from Rhode Island, where he used to play lacrosse. Water polo definitely is less popular back east.

"It's not a big sport," Yokota said, laughing. "It's not really ideal with all the cold."

Yokota continues to heat up for Newport Harbor, which is coming into a tough stretch. The Sailors play El Toro (No. 4 in Division I) on Saturday, before a big league showdown against Huntington Beach on Wednesday and the Battle of the Bay on Oct. 22.

"Right now is just a great time to improve," Yokota said. "Every game really helps me … It's nerve-wracking being in goal. It's the last line of defense and you've got to cover the defense. If they make any mistakes, it's up to you."

Yokota still needs to be on the move in the goal.

In the starting lineup, he's settled in just fine.

*

Koby Yokota

Born: May 16, 1993

Hometown: Newport, R.I.

Height: 6-foot-4

Weight: 210 pounds

Sport: Water polo

Coach: Robert Lynn

Favorite food: Steak

Favorite movie: "I Am Legend"

Favorite athletic moment: Helping the Newport Water Polo Foundation 14-and-under team win the San Diego County Cup in 2008.

Week in review: Yokota had 11 saves as Newport Harbor defeated rival Corona del Mar, 9-7, in the final of the S&R Sport Cup on Oct. 8. For the four-game tournament, he had 26 saves.

matthew.szabo@latimes.com

Twitter: @mjszabo

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