IRVINE – The Laguna Beach boys’ water polo team donned a new look entering the most important week of the 2011 season.
Sporting Mohawk haircuts, the cutting-edge move united the top-ranked Breakers who went out Wednesday and mowed down No. 4-seed La Canada, 14-5, in a CIF Southern Section Division III semifinal game at the William Woollett Aquatics Center in Irvine.
The one-sided victory allows Laguna (21-5) to reach the Division III title game for a second-straight year and the 11:45 a.m. championship match Saturday is a rematch of the 2010 division final. The Breakers will take on No. 2-seed Damien at Woollett.
Damien edged Palos Verdes, 10-8, in the first of two Division III semifinals Wednesday at Woollett.
“We are really excited to be in the final again,” said Laguna Coach Ethan Damato, who last year guided the Breakers to an 11-9 win over Damien to give the program its first Southern Section championship. “It feels great. Back-to-back years ... I love it. I wouldn’t ask for anyone else [than Damien] to play in the finals.”
Laguna dominated a La Canada squad (19-7) that won the Rio Hondo League championship and posted postseason wins over Santa Monica and Aliso Niguel to reach the semifinals. The Breakers led from start to finish and routed the Spartans who just last month, nearly stole a nonleague win from the Breakers at the Laguna pool.
There was no such drama Wednesday.
“It was so much different than the last time we played them,” Damato said of a 14-11 overtime victory the Breakers snatched from defeat against the Spartans on Oct. 11. “It was nice to have No. 11 [Nolan McConnell] in the water for this one. He was awesome out there and our defense was lights out.”
McConnell sat out the Oct. 11 game and made his presence felt from the get-go Wednesday. The senior utility player powered in the game’s first goal less than one minute into the match and went on to finish with a game-high five goals. McConnell added two assists and three steals to his resume.
McConnell’s offensive prowess was evident. Sharing the spotlight was a Laguna defense, and the play of senior Erik Henrikson in the cage, was nothing short of outstanding. La Canada scored two of its five goals on six-on-five advantage situations and a third score came on a five-meter penalty shot.
One minute into the fourth quarter, Henrikson frustrated Roszkos by blocking his shot and Roszkos had his ensuing shot double-blocked in the hole. Seconds later, McConnell blocked Stefan’s shot attempt and the Breakers took possession.
Laguna was on top, 11-3, at the time.
“That was our focus all week,” Damato said of his team’s dominating defensive effort. “I think we spent about 15 minutes on offense in two practices this week. The rest of the time, we spent on defense and working on our counterattack. It really paid off. I thought our defense was amazing today.”
The Breakers stormed to a 7-3 halftime lead and were in complete control by intermission. Two of the Spartans’ three first-half scores came on power plays in man-advantage situations. They failed on one such situation just before the half when Henrikson, who finished with 12 saves, blocked a shot by Peter Loakes with 26 seconds left before intermission. The Breakers also stymied the Spartans on another six-on-five situation early in the second half.
After Nicky Brunner scored his first goal of the game just 17 seconds into the half to make it 8-3, Henrikson drew an exclusion when he came out of the cage to challenge La Canada’s Chase Borisoff. With Henrikson sidelined for 20 seconds, Caleb Scott protected the cage and the Breakers got the ball back after Samer Alkateb poked the ball away from the Spartans' Trevor Roszkos which led to a steal by Brunner.
In another La Canada six-one-five later in the third quarter, Symeon Stefan had his shot blocked by Henrikson but the Spartans still maintained possession. Henrikson then blocked Roszkos in the same series and moments later, stuffed a shot attempt by Borisoff. The trifecta protected a 10-3 Laguna lead with less than two minutes left in the quarter.
“Eric, as always, was great,” Damato said. “Defensively, we did a real good job at following our gameplan. I was really happy, really happy, with our defensive effort.
“To top it off, Nolan was great out there and Caleb (Scott) scored two goals coming off the bench. We were up eight late and the guys were still firing away. It was a great team victory.”
In addition to McConnell’s five goals, Scott, Brunner and Riley Thomas each scored twice. Alkateb and Camron Haurer both scored once.
Laguna led, 4-1 lead after one quarter and took a 7-3 lead at the half. The Breakers then shut out the Spartans in the third quarter and extended their lead to 11-4 going into the fourth quarter.
In addition to being a rematch of last year’s final, Laguna and Damien met in nonleague play at the Laguna pool on Oct. 18. The Breakers led from start to finish in a 10-5 victory.
The teams have been ranked first and second in Division III throughout the season.
“It’s unreal to be going back to the finals and playing the team we played last year,” Henrikson said. “We are excited for the opportunity and we’ll be fired-up on Saturday.”
Laguna players went out Sunday and got the Mohawk haircuts, Henrikson said.
“The seniors started talking about it and then everyone jumped in,” he said. “Our original idea was to get a mullet-type of Mohawk and what we got is sort of on the longer side.
“It kind of brought us together as a team. It kind of said that we are here to play. We were noticed at school and I think our fans like the look.”
Damato had other thoughts.
“It wasn’t my favorite thing for them to do, but it was all them and it brought them together as a team," he said. “That’s what’s important.”