No. 1, again.
A year after winning its first Southern Section championship, the top-ranked Laguna Beach boys' water polo team retained its top billing for a second straight year by polishing off second-ranked Damien of La Verne, 14-8, Saturday in the Division 3 title match at the William Woollett Jr. Aquatics Center in Irvine.
The Breakers were in unison in saying that they "stepped it up" in the final.
"This is awesome," Laguna Coach Ethan Damato said moments after his team and coaching staff took a victory jump into the pool. "I think the pressure has been on this team all year and our guys have responded so well to every challenge. This (title) is something we've been wanting all year.
"What really impressed me was that this entire team stepped up big when we lost two key starters. That says a lot about our guys."
Laguna, which wrapped up a 25-6 season, never trailed in a rematch of last year's division final it won, 11-9. The Breakers were challenged a few times Saturday but in each instance came up with answers to potential Spartan surges. Even more impressive, they came up with a six-goal victory after losing two of their scoring leaders to foul trouble at the start of the fourth quarter.
The Breakers were only up, 10-7, entering the final seven minutes of regulation play.
Junior attacker, Riley Thomas, the team's second-leading scorer, drew his third foul after he incurred an exclusion at the end of the third quarter. Two minutes into the fourth quarter, Camron Hauer, another junior attacker and the team's third-leading scorer, was whistled for his third and final foul with six minutes left in regulation.
The Breakers, however, went out and scored the first four goals of the final quarter, then turned to its stingy defense to pull away. They held a 14-7 lead with under three minutes to play and had the game in control at that point. They then waited out the shot clock on their final three possessions and both teams cleared their benches with 1:22 remaining.
When the substitutions began, the strong Laguna contingent in attendance went wild with applause as the Breakers exited the water.
"We've got a great team and our depth showed today," Damato said. "Our guys are so mentally tough and they really stepped up when we lost Riley and Camron. . Was I worried when we lost those two? Yes, absolutely, because we lost two of our big offensive weapons. But we didn't miss a beat. Tommy (Renner) and Nicky (Brunner) played spectacularly in that fourth quarter and filled that void so well. On defense, we played tough, as usual.
"First of all, we made some huge stops in a few five-on-six disadvantages and Erik (Henrikson) had some huge saves in that fourth quarter. I thought he was a little off at the beginning and let a few balls slip by in the second and third quarters, but he was awesome in the fourth quarter. I told the guys that if they stepped up and made some plays in the fourth quarter, we'd win a CIF championship."
The first to step up was Renner. With Laguna in a six-on-five advantage, he fired a shot from close range that bounced through the hands of Damien goalie Kyle Garwick. The score put the Breakers up 11-7 with 6:17 left. In a key sequence that followed, Hauer drew his third foul on an exclusion to give Damien (24-7) a man-up advantage. Senior utility Nolan McConnell then came up with a field block on a shot by the Spartans' Austin Miller. After Breakers senior defender Samer Alkateb drew an exclusion, Henrikson stopped a shot by Trevor Adkins.
Henrikson also smothered a shot attempt by Adam Sarrail with 4:28 to play and on Laguna's counter-attack, Brunner scored his first goal of the game to push the lead to 12-7.
Renner got his second goal on a nine-meter shot to make it 13-7 and McConnell ripped in a shot with 3:04 to play to gave Laguna its biggest lead at 14-7.
"The way we played in the fourth quarter, after losing Riley and Camron, shows how strong we are," Renner said. "We're probably one of the best-conditioned teams around and the fourth quarter has been our quarter all year. That's where we show our strength."
"We made some really crucial plays with the game on the line and that shows you how strong we are as a team," he said. "We made a statement in the fourth quarter."
McConnell was his usual dominant self in the pool. Just as he had done in Wednesday's victory over No. 4 La Cañada, he scored the game's first goal Saturday on a power shot. And just as he done in that 14-5 semifinal win, McConnell let out a loud yell as he thrust a fist pump into the air after the score.
It was as though he was announcing that the Breakers were ready for anything thrown their way.
"I was just expressing that we were ready to play. We really played well and I'm so proud of what we've accomplished," said McConnell, who scored the game's first two goals and led all scorers with six. "We've loved having a target on our back since we won CIF last year. We've played with confidence from the get-go and that confidence comes from Ethan. He's my first coach and has taught me everything I know about water polo. I'll never forget what he's taught me.
"I remember losing to Saddleback in the 12-and-under finals at the Junior Olympics a few years back with a lot of these guys on that team," continued McConnell, pointing to his teammates. "Now, to be standing here, winning back-to-back CIF championships, well, it's just an incredible, unbelievable feeling."
Like it did against La Cañada on Wednesday, Laguna took a 4-1 lead on Damien after the first quarter. The Breakers were on top, 9-5, at the half, but were outscored, 2-1, by the Spartans in the third quarter. Then, Laguna got down to business and finished its mission to win consecutive championships.
In addition to McConnell's six goals, Thomas scored three goals, Hauer and Renner both scored twice and Brunner once. McConnell, Thomas, Brunner and Alkateb all had two steals and Hauer and Renner each had a steal. Brunner also led the team in assists with two.
Henrikson capped his stellar career with a 12-save performance. He got two of them in a huge sequence in the final 33 seconds of the third quarter to protect a 10-7 lead. With the Spartans in a man-up advantage after Thomas drew his third foul on an exclusion, the senior blocked a shot by the Spartans' Travis Carnochan. With six seconds left, he enveloped a shot by Miller shot in front of the Laguna cage.
"He's so awesome," McConnell said of Henrikson. "He's a heck of a player and one of my best friends. He had another great game for us."
The Laguna senior class that molded the program's first back-to-back championship teams is McConnell, Henrikson, Renner, Hauer, Alkateb and Jordan Wills.
"Where this program has come from in the last five, six years is amazing," Damato said. "I can't say enough about these seniors and last year we had Spencer (Dodson) on our team. These guys stepped it up and put us on the map."