NEWPORT BEACH — It looked like the shot in the closing minutes bounced square off the noggin of Newport Harbor High sophomore goalie Cleo Harrington.
Harrington said it only hit her on the right shoulder before brushing by her face. If she had taken the head shot in the key Sunset League girls' water polo game, it still wouldn't have been an issue.
"I don't mind it, as long as it doesn't go in," she said.
The Sailors' resiliency certainly went a long way Wednesday night in possibly determining the league champion.
Newport Harbor appears poised to take back the crown after rallying in the fourth quarter for a huge victory over Los Alamitos, 9-7, at Newport Harbor High.
The Sailors (12-4, 3-0 in league), ranked No. 2 in the CIF Southern Section Division I coaches' poll, are now in outright first place with two league games remaining. They can secure their fifth outright Sunset League crown in six years, and the important CIF Southern Section Division I seeding that goes with it, by beating Marina on Feb. 1 and Edison on Feb. 8.
Defending league champion Los Alamitos (15-4, 2-1), ranked No. 3 in Division I, dropped into a tie for second place in league. There were plenty of Sailors who helped make it happen.
Junior Elissia Schilling scored a season-high five goals. Schilling, who delivered the game-winner in sudden-death overtime to help the Sailors rally past Laguna Beach in last Friday's Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions quarterfinal, also again delivered in clutch moments.
Newport Harbor came into the fourth quarter of Wednesday's game down, 7-6, but junior Avery Peterson scored a lob from set to tie the score with 5:48 left. Then Schilling went to work, taking Peterson's pass to score her own lob shot with 4:28 remaining that gave the Tars an 8-7 lead.
Schilling even provided the insurance goal on a clean backhand goal with 1:07 to play. Peterson got a field block on the defensive end and Newport was on its way to a big victory.
"Every day in practice, at two meters we're working hard," Schilling said. "Avery, me, Maddy [McLaren], Allyson [Hall], Paisley [Muller]. There's just so many girls on our team that can guard, drive and go in and post up. That definitely was a huge advantage, I feel, for us this game.
"...That's our game plan, get the ball to set and hopefully work for a shot or an ejection. [Coach Bill Barnett] basically just told us that it's the fourth quarter and we're down one. We needed to come back and get the job done, and that's what we did."
Harrington had several big saves in the fourth quarter, finishing with 14 for the game. For much of the contest McLaren, a UCLA-bound senior, effectively guarded her future teammate with the Bruins, Los Al senior Rachel Fattal, who did score twice.
McLaren scored on a hard outside shot from about eight meters, and she also led the Sailors with three steals.
"She was instrumental, I thought, in communicating with the girls defensively on when to drop, when to 'slough,' when to help," Newport assistant coach Brian Melstrom said. "I think she was definitely a defensive leader in the game."
McLaren said it was tough at times guarding her good friend and SOCAL club teammate Fattal, but "you just have to leave it in the water."
The Sailors certainly gave maximum effort early. Junior Carly Christian drew two exclusions in the first quarter, also scoring twice. Senior Sophie Leveque had two assists in the quarter, and the Sailors built their lead to 5-2 midway through the second on Schilling's lob goal. But Los Al closed within 6-5 by halftime after a strong move at set by junior Stephanie Mutafyan.
Griffins senior Marley Delaney converted a lob from the outside midway through the third quarter to tie the score, then sophomore Erika Pauley scored from the left with 1:10 remaining in the quarter to give Los Alamitos its first lead of the night.
Fattal and Mutafyan each had four steals for the Griffins, who ran an effective press defense. But Schilling kept battling the entire game, Melstrom said, in keeping up her strong recent play.
"Elissia is stepping up in the clutch, for sure," he said. "She works really hard for four quarters. She struggles at times, but as of late she seems to come out with the big winner in the end, when we need it the most."
This time, unlike in Saturday night's TOC title match loss to Corona del Mar, Newport Harbor shined down the stretch in its first meeting of the season with its league rivals.
"We watched film and stuff, but it was kind of hard to evaluate how the game was going to go," McLaren said. "I think we just went out hard and that helped us a lot."
Harrington also helped the Sailors a lot. She made four of her saves in the closing minutes — including the aforementioned shoulder shot with three minutes left by Los Al sophomore Ella Weber. Harrington also made a big stuff on Mutafyan's shot from five meters with less than two minutes left. The play protected what was still a one-goal lead at the time.
"She's the nicest person, she has such a warm heart and she never gives up," Schilling said of her goalkeeper. "She's going to go out there and fight until the end, and that's what she did tonight."
Someone asked Harrington how tall she is. She responded that she's 5-foot-8.
"I feel a little bit taller, but they keep measuring me and it's always 5-8," Harrington said.
Newport Harbor again appears ready to stand tall in league.