NEWPORT BEACH — Pippa Saunders said it's hard to explain to people who don't play water polo.
When they ask how well she's been playing, they're usually asking how many goals she's been scoring. Nevermind that Saunders, who did lead the Corona del Mar High girls' water polo team with 66 goals last year, has changed roles a bit.
"It's different," Saunders said. "I take more pride in setting people up, getting that defensive stop, you know? ... It's not as glamorous, but at the end of the day, if we want to win I'm going to do my part. I'm going to set up other people if that's what it has to be. I just want to win, so if that means me not scoring goals and setting up other people, that's completely fine by me."
The Cal-bound senior is fourth on the Sea Kings in scoring, with eight goals. She still was able to take matters into her own hands Saturday, in the third-place game of the Holiday Cup at Newport Harbor High.
Saunders scored back-to-back goals in the third quarter as CdM rallied for its second win of the season over Back Bay rival Newport Harbor, 5-4. And after the game CdM Coach Sam Bailey said it was the best game he'd ever seen from Saunders, who fouled out late in the game but also had two steals and drew a pair of exclusions.
Her play was aggressive, passionate, urgent even.
"I don't think I've ever seen her play a more dominant game," Bailey said of Saunders, a four-year varsity player who is always a vocal leader for CdM. "[She was] just doing everything, really showing how much she loves her team and how much she really cares about her teammates. I feel like a lot of things in water polo, and probably in life, begin with communication. Pippa's ability to lead, both by example and also verbally, it was exemplified in this afternoon's game."
In fact, Bailey said, he was proud of the entire four-player senior class for coming back strong after a tough 6-4 semifinal loss to Santa Barbara. Newport Harbor lost its semifinal match, 7-5, to Foothill.
"For the girls to be able to take a loss that I'm sure they took pretty hard, and rebound like that at the end of a long weekend, it shows a lot of heart," Bailey said. "The seniors are incredible. They're so excited about playing for each other, so excited about playing the sport. You look at the defensive effort by Alex Musselman and especially Pippa Saunders, the offensive effort by Diana Murphy and, again, especially Pippa Saunders. And Victoria Pierotti is just being solid on every side of the ball."
Foothill won the Holiday Cup title, rallying for a 7-6 victory over Santa Barbara on Ashley Zwirner's six-on-five strike with four seconds left in the game. CdM (6-1) and Newport Harbor (5-3), the top two teams in the CIF Southern Section Division I coaches' poll, were left to play for third place after their semifinal losses.
The Sea Kings had more to celebrate roughly eight hours before 2012 hit, after beating the Sailors for the second time this year.
Newport Harbor, similar to the Battle of the Bay game on Dec. 16, did take a halftime lead. The Sailors were up, 3-2, after first-half goals from juniors Carly Christian, Allyson Hall and Elissia Schilling. This, despite the fact senior Maddy McLaren sat out some of the first half after her lip got cut open.
Saunders had an answer. She scored cross-cage early in the third quarter to tie the score, then she nailed an authoritative power-play shot into the upper-left corner to give CdM a 4-3 advantage. After junior Genevieve Weed (two goals) scored from about eight meters, the Sea Kings had a 5-3 lead with 2:08 left in the third quarter.
Schilling scored a six-on-five goal from set, taking a quick pass from senior Presley Pender to cut the CdM lead to 5-4 with 1:51 left in the game. But the Sailors could not get closer, despite yet another strong game from sophomore goalie Cleo Harrington (13 saves).
Musselman had seven saves and three steals for CdM, and Murphy also scored.
"It was awesome," Saunders said. "A perfect way to end the year, too, since it's New Year's Eve. It's been one huge thing, ever since I was a freshman, from [former coach Aaron] Chaney to Sam. They've always stressed being able to bounce back after a hard game, after a loss. I'm really proud of how everyone played."
Both teams had rough semifinal games. Newport Harbor came out ice-cold in its shooting against Foothill, unlike its 13-11 victory on the road Dec. 9. The Sailors trailed, 3-0, at halftime before mounting a comeback.
They were still down, 5-2, after three quarters. But two six-on-five goals, from McLaren and Christian respectively, trimmed the Knights' lead to just a single goal. Foothill's Brenna Thomas (a game-high four goals) put her team back up two, but then Schilling scored off Pender's pass to bring Newport back within a goal with 3:11 to play.
The equalizer never came, however, and Foothill's Jessie Porter scored with 29 seconds left at the shot-clock buzzer to seal the Knights' win. Pender had two goals to lead Newport, and Harrington made 14 saves.
"I feel like when you play the [No.] 1 through 6 seed, it's anybody's game, anybody's day," Schilling said. "Today just wasn't our day. Our shots were off. It's just the little things we need to work on in practice. We'll get there ... they're all things that can be fixed, which is good."
Corona del Mar had also already beaten its semifinal opponent this season, as well as last year in the Division I quarterfinals. But Santa Barbara displayed a strong defense, anchored by goalie Maddie Trabucco (14 saves), to hold the Sea Kings to a season-low four goals.
CdM never got closer than two goals in the second half. Cassidy Papa had a pair of goals for CdM, and Musselman made nine saves.
Santa Barbara junior Kelsey O'Brien (two goals, five steals) had a standout game for the Dons.
"We had a lot of opportunities to score," Saunders said. "I would say we had better opportunities than they did, but we didn't execute. In the first half our defense was kind of lackadaisical ... I'd say our second-half defense definitely was an improvement, but if you can't score you can't win."
Bailey put it in a bit simpler terms.
"Highs and lows," he said. "Highs and lows. You know, it's just part of the season."
CdM can be glad it also added another victory over Newport Harbor to that season.