SANTA BARBARA — They definitely did it the hard way.
The Corona del Mar High girls' water polo team fell behind in each of its final three games at the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions.
In each game, the Sea Kings owned the fourth quarter. Now they have the championship hardware to prove it.
Corona del Mar rallied from a four-goal deficit to stun Back Bay rival Newport Harbor, 10-8, in the TOC final Saturday night at Santa Barbara High. And, while the Sea Kings said it definitely felt good to beat the Sailors for the third time this season, winning the tournament meant more.
"I think that we fought really hard," said Princeton-bound CdM senior Diana Murphy, the tournament MVP. "[We were] just thinking, 'This is our last game, our last chance, our last trip to Santa Barbara together.' "
Cal-bound senior Pippa Saunders, also an all-tournament team selection, nodded.
"For the seniors, it's emotional," Saunders said.
Nobody could say CdM (14-1) didn't earn its third Santa Barbara TOC title, and first since 2008. In a semifinal win over Los Alamitos, the Sea Kings were down 5-3 in the first quarter. But they gave up just two goals the rest of the way, again rallying for a 9-7 victory.
"It shows that there's still definitely room for improvement, but the girls play with so passion for each other," CdM Coach Sam Bailey said. "More than anything I think that their ability to really focus on the present and concentrate on doing their best in that particular moment, it really helps them out in situations like that. I don't think at any moment they panicked or felt confused or lacked confidence."
The Santa Barbara TOC is arguably the toughest of the three in-season tournaments. An all-Back Bay final was impressive, considering CdM and Newport were the third and fourth seeds, respectively.
UCLA-bound senior Maddy McLaren and junior Elissia Schilling earned all-tournament team honors for the Sailors (11-4), who have lost halftime leads in each of their three games against CdM.
Credit Murphy, who scored 12 goals in the four-game tournament and consistently terrorized opposing defenses at two meters. But it certainly looked bleak for the Sea Kings early in the championship game. Michigan-bound Newport senior Presley Pender scored twice in the first quarter, and Schilling and Carly Christian added goals as the Sailors built a 4-0 lead early in the second.
The Sea Kings responded, cutting the deficit to 5-4 by halftime after Murphy beat a double team to score with three seconds left in the second quarter. She did it again at the third-quarter buzzer, netting a goal to knot the score at 7.
CdM then scored the first two goals of the fourth, as Cassidy Papa scored on the counterattack before Saunders struck from the left wing. Then Murphy scored again from set, as the surging Sea Kings took a 10-7 lead with 2:12 left in the game.
McLaren nailed an outside shot on the Sailors' next possession, but they couldn't get closer.
"It's not fun playing from behind," Saunders said. "It's something we need to work on, but if it comes down to that, I think we all trust each other that we can fight it out."
Murphy and Papa, who played some of the tournament with a sharp headache as a result of her sinuses, each scored three goals in the final. McCormick also had a strong match with a pair of goals and three steals, and UCLA-bound senior goalie Alex Musselman made nine saves.
Schilling and Pender had two goals each for Newport Harbor, while McLaren, Avery Peterson and Allyson Hall also scored in the final. Standout sophomore goalie Cleo Harrington had 11 saves.
Harrington had a career-high 17 saves in the semifinals, a big 10-9 win over top-seeded Foothill. The Sailors have won two of three meetings this year against the Holiday Cup champion Knights, who came into the TOC ranked No. 1 in CIF Southern Section Division I.
"To come back and beat them the second time really shows that we're the team that deserves to win," Harrington said. "We've been working so hard in practice, working to play as a team."
Pender took over the semifinal offensively in the second half, scoring all four of her goals. The team captain also scored the game-winning goal, a six-on-five lob shot from the left with 2:30 remaining in the game.
"Presley played amazing," Harrington said. "She saw the goalie's weaknesses, saw that the goalie's hands were too deep and just fired it in near-side. She saved our butts, that's for sure … She was fired up."
The Sailors have never won the TOC, though they've remarkably now finished as runners-up seven times since 2003. They now prepare for a crucial Sunset League game against Los Al on Wednesday. They'd do well to study film from CdM's semifinal win over the Griffins.
Murphy had five goals, and CdM also shined defensively. Saunders, matched up on UCLA-bound Griffins senior Rachel Fattal for much of the game, held her scoreless. Senior Victoria Pierotti and junior Genevieve Weed also made big contributions as the Sea Kings buckled down on defense, and Musselman made 12 saves.
"We just communicated and played more as a team," Pierotti said. "We realized that our set defenders could take care of the center, so we only helped back when we needed to, rather than just automatically dropping back."
Pierotti, one of four seniors on CdM, said the Sea Kings have reason to play with confidence even if they fall behind.
"It's not just one person that we're looking to set up, it's everyone working together," Pierotti said. "I think that helps us in the third and fourth quarters especially."
The resilient champion Sea Kings proved that all that matters is the score after the fourth quarter.
"You've got to play, you've got to put everything out there," Bailey said. "It's the same thing with life. You've got to make the most of every minute of every single day, and do it with a smile. The girls showed that."