NEWPORT BEACH — The Newport Harbor High boys' water polo team fell behind for the first time midway through the fourth quarter.
The Sailors' three-goal halftime lead was long gone. They needed something to counter the momentum of visiting El Toro in Saturday afternoon's key nonleague game.
In fact, the Sailors waited until the waning seconds to deliver the counterpunch to knock out the Chargers.
It came, fittingly enough, on the counterattack.
Junior Dan Stevens scored with 15 seconds left as Newport Harbor won the wild game, 10-9, in a battle of CIF Southern Section Division I powers.
Stevens' second goal of the game came after a steal from senior Ryan Fowler with just less than 30 seconds to go. Stevens got a precise pass from fellow junior Preston Lee and turned, firing one past rapidly charging El Toro goalie Garrett Danner for the game-winner.
"On that last play I just swam really hard," Stevens said. "I saw Ryan steal the ball, and that kind of fired me up at the very end. I just swam hard and Preston gave me a great pass. I couldn't have asked for a better pass."
Stevens said he knew he would have to shoot quickly to beat Danner.
"He's a great goalie," said Stevens of Danner, who made nine saves. "He [charges out] all the time; I did my homework."
The Sailors (15-1), ranked No. 2 in Division I, felt like they passed a test after beating No. 4 El Toro (16-2). They survived one last scare when an El Toro shot at the buzzer skipped over the cage.
Saturday's game was the only possible meeting of the two teams until CIF.
"It's a great victory," Newport Harbor Coach Robert Lynn said. "After that win at the S&R Cup, it's another good step in the right direction."
Newport Harbor earned a 7-4 halftime lead. But El Toro, coming off a 10-8 overtime victory over Corona del Mar on Friday night that Lynn scouted, didn't look tired in the second half.
The Chargers took their first lead when Zach Nelson scored on a six-on-five with 4:11 left in the game, giving the Chargers an 8-7 advantage.
"We switched to a 'three drop' to get some cheap goals, and we did," El Toro Coach Don Stoll said. "We tried to spring some free counter goals and we did that. If we didn't get a goal, sometimes we got a kick-out, and that maybe gets us a goal on six-on-five. It does help us a little bit offensively, because once we get in the front court we're not as good, I don't think."
Stevens, a set guard who was excluded for the second time early in the third quarter, was good in the front court. He made a difference on offense after he was reinserted to start the fourth. Stevens scored his own six-on-five goal off another pass from Lee with 1:32 left, tying the score at 8-8.
But El Toro ran a pick for senior Joey Fuentes, who scored bar-down from the right wing 20 seconds later to give the Chargers another lead. Fuentes led the visitors with four goals.
Newport Harbor earned another six-on-five chance. Senior Farrel South converted from the outside to again tie the score with 50 seconds left.
"We were taking our time on our passes," said South, who also had four goals, one on a penalty shot. "I just saw the opening."
So did Fowler, who pressed and got the final steal that the Sailors needed. Only after the final buzzer could they exhale, after they snapped El Toro's 12-game winning streak. Newport Harbor has now won eight in a row.
Senior goalie Koby Yokota had another strong game for Newport with 11 saves. Lee scored twice, and juniors Curtis Fink and Andrew Silvers each added a goal. Fink was battling sickness.
Lynn gave credit to the Chargers but said his team has things to work on.
"I felt that would be a tough, close game and it was," he said. "I don't feel we played a great game. I feel we played three minutes great, the last three minutes of the game, where we made the field block, shut them down on defense and counterattacked. We got open and made things happen. Of course, I can't dream and say just because we scored three goals in three minutes, that's our offense. I can't count on that, but I can count on [our defense] … We've got to be able to make stops … that's the whole game.
"El Toro is not [undefeated defending Division I champion] Mater Dei. Mater Dei is levels up on this, so if we can't stop [El Toro], what are we are going to do with Mater Dei?"
Mater Dei Coach Chris Segesman and several of his players watched Saturday's game. Lynn said Segesman, who like Lynn is a former Olympian, congratulated him on the win after the game.
The Sailors hope more wins are in their future. They play host to Huntington Beach (No. 5 in Division I) in a key Sunset League game on Wednesday.
"I think we're doing good," Stevens said. "We have to stay humble and we have to keep working hard."