A full-tank thriller

NEWPORT BEACH — It was the kind of shot that, if captured on video, someone might upload to YouTube to get a bunch of hits.

It was the kind of shot that uplifts the spirits of one team and crushes the other, all in the blink of a eye.

It was the kind of shot that was almost too good to be true, a high-arcing heave from full-tank that dropped perfectly into the net at the other end.

And it came from ... Corona del Mar High senior goalie Alex Musselman?

Yes, you'd better believe it. A couple hundred people saw it happen with their own eyes Friday at Newport Harbor High.

Musselman is known for her saves. She still came up with a huge play on offense when her team needed it most.

What an ending to the high-stakes Battle of the Bay girls' water polo game. Musselman's shot at the fourth-quarter buzzer went in, stunning host Newport Harbor and lifting CdM to a 6-5 victory in the teams' rivalry match.

"Dramatic" seemed almost too normal a word to describe Corona del Mar's first Battle of the Bay win in three years. "Surreal" might be closer to the truth.

"Instant classic" are probably two more words to describe it.

"I've never shot to win a game before," Musselman said. "It's the first time. I'm in shock. I didn't believe it happened. I just kind of shot it, because I knew it was the end of the end of the quarter. I no had idea what the time was."

In a 5-5 tie, the time was four seconds left in regulation when Newport Harbor got the ball. Coach Bill Barnett called timeout. The Sailors got a shot from outside five meters, but it went over the cage with 0.65 seconds left on the clock.

CdM assistant coach Brian Mericle quickly threw a replacement ball to Musselman, who chucked in what some might call a miracle shot at the buzzer. Newport Harbor sophomore goalie Cleo Harrington, who had matched Musselman block for block throughout the game, didn't have enough time to get back in the goal fast enough after starting at mid-tank following the Sailors' timeout.

It all happened lightning-fast.

"Somehow a ball appeared in my hand, and then I threw it," Musselman said. "That was what happened."

The Sea Kings (3-0), the top-ranked team in the CIF Southern Section Division I poll, will definitely take the result. It stopped a five-game losing streak to Newport Harbor (3-1), ranked No. 2 in Division I, dating back to the 2008-09 season. The UCLA-bound Musselman, a three-year starter in goal and last year's Newport-Mesa Player of the Year, had never beaten Newport Harbor in a high school varsity game.

Musselman said she had been practicing shooting the ball during the week. CdM junior Cassidy Papa said she had confidence that Musselman could make the shot.

Still, this was crazy, right?

"Definitely one of the most exciting games I've been a part of," CdM Coach Sam Bailey said. "It doesn't happen too often, you know, but Musselman's got a great arm. She's an outstanding athlete. I'd love to say that we've been practicing that all season. She has been working on her shot, but it's not like we're writing up any plays for her with 0.65 seconds left."

The final score was CdM's first lead of the game. Newport Harbor started strong, taking a 4-2 lead at halftime behind a pair of six-on-five goals from junior Carly Christian.

CdM stepped it up defensively and chipped away on offense. Junior Ally McCormick scored on a power play to bring the Sea Kings within one. Then, McCormick tied the score on a counterattack goal with 50 seconds left in the third quarter.

"We've been conditioning and working so hard in practice," Papa said. "We knew that we weren't going to get tired. We knew that every second we were going to be chipping away and getting closer and closer. When we got that first goal by Ally, it was just confidence, like 'Hey, we're down by one.' Once we got the score tied it was just like, 'OK, this is our game. There's nothing stopping us right now' ... We knew we were going to finish this game."

Newport Harbor did respond, as junior Allyson Hall scored a six-on-five goal after Michigan-bound senior captain Presley Pender drew the exclusion on a strong inside drive. The Sailors led, 5-4, after three quarters.

But Princeton-bound CdM senior Diana Murphy then knotted the score again with 4:49 left, beating a double-team with a backhander from set.

Newport Harbor senior Maddy McLaren played shutdown defense near the end of the game, stopping CdM's attack. But Musselman also made a couple of big saves on her future teammate with the Bruins, helping keep the score tied.

"I think they just came back the second half with a press [defense], and we weren't adapting to that," said McLaren, who had a goal, two steals and also drew two exclusions. "We didn't adapt to it. We didn't drive on it."

CdM senior Pippa Saunders did get a lob shot off in the final seconds but it hit off the top of the bar and went out of play, giving the Sailors one more shot and setting up the wild turn of events.

Musselman said she believes it's the first goal she's scored in a high school game.

"I think I've scored goals in summer games, when we were at those pools that were super-tiny," she said. "Never like this. But I've been practicing it in practice, and I haven't made one. I literally can't make them, but I've been trying so hard. I've been working so hard on shooting."

Sophomore Avery Warwick also scored a goal for CdM, which converted just one of four power-play opportunities. Junior Avery Peterson contributed a goal and two steals for Newport Harbor, which went three-for-four on its player-advantage.

Both goalies had very strong matches, each recording 10 saves. Harrington made a big stop on McCormick with less than a minute left, barely blocking enough of the ball to keep it from going into the goal.

"[Harrington] really dealt with the crowd really well," McLaren said. "That was her first game with a big crowd, and she was amazing. That shot at the end was not her fault at all. It was just too perfect. She got back as soon as she could, but they passed the ball in so quick. It was just a perfect shot."

Papa used the same adjective, perfect, to describe Musselman's shot. For the Sea Kings it was also a perfect way to end their recent frustrations against the Sailors, who won all three of the teams' meetings last year.

CdM's experienced core group of Saunders, Musselman, Murphy, Papa and McCormick continue to believe that they can get the job done.

"We keep saying that ... [this is] our year," Papa said. "We've been playing together for so long that we knew that this was going to be our year to just come out. We knew that we were going to win Battle of the Bay [in] Pippa's senior year. It was just so much hype. We were ready for this game for the longest time.

"We wanted to start a new tradition. We're going to have the bell for the next couple of years, hopefully."

Both teams play next in the annual Holiday Cup tournament, which they co-host Dec. 30-31. The two-week break is good for Back Bay girls' water polo fans.

They might need that long to catch their breaths.


Twitter: @mjszabo

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