NEWPORT BEACH — Larry Draluck is in his fifth year as the head coach of the Newport Harbor High girls' soccer team.
The Sailors are aiming for their second straight CIF Southern Section Division I playoff appearance. They're also making something more intangible, but every bit as valuable — a winning culture.
"If we can make the playoffs two years in a row, we've established some continuity here and an expectation of excellence," Draluck said. "In my first few years, that didn't exist. I think the girls came out and maybe expected not to be successful. Big difference [now]. We have a little bit of pride in the team. This team came together nicely."
After Thursday's 3-1 victory over Fountain Valley at Davidson Field, the Sailors have more than pride. They have a share of first place in the Sunset League, one of the most competitive leagues in Southern California.
Senior forward Josie Jogwe scored twice as Newport Harbor improved to 5-7-2, 3-1-1 in league. Halfway through the league schedule there's a three-way tie for first, as Edison and Los Alamitos also own 3-1-1 records following the Chargers' 1-0 victory over the Griffins on Thursday.
Jogwe said she's excited for her team. It is believed that Newport Harbor has never won a league title in girls' soccer; last year the Sailors finished third in league before upsetting Saugus on the road in the first round of CIF.
"I think it's really good," Jogwe said. "No one knew who we were. You'd tell people, 'I'm from Newport,' and they're like, 'Oh, OK.' No one really knows who you are. But this year and last year, it's been great, knowing that we can play hard and get results."
Newport Harbor did so, attacking early and often. The Sailors scored first in the sixth minute, off a corner kick from senior Shanay Fischer. Freshman Natalie Ward's initial shot in the box was blocked, but Jogwe was there for the rebound goal.
Last-place Fountain Valley (4-11-2, 0-5) answered in the 22nd minute, after Dakota Griggs played the ball ahead to freshman Kasey Reeve. Newport goalie Emily Browne was forced to come out and Reeve dribbled by her and tapped it in, tying the score. It was the first goal the Sailors had allowed in their last three league games.
"There wasn't too much urgency in the first half," Draluck said. "I think in the second half we kind of responded ... To [the Barons'] credit, usually they're very disorganized, but they played very well tactically. They gave us a lot of problems, so credit goes to them."
The Sailors still took the lead into halftime, after junior midfielder Jenna Castillo earned another corner kick for Newport Harbor just before the intermission. Fischer took it again and the ball went to senior defender Shannon Boler, who scored her first goal of the season from the left side of the box.
Jogwe scored again in the opening minute of the second half off a pass from junior Jill Messersmith, and the Sailors were on their way to victory. Draluck kept telling his team to manage the game, and he watched as they mostly succeeded. Talented freshmen including Ward, Matilda Higman, Alyssa Randall and Allana Rockwell played with a lot of energy. This was Randall's first game back from a concussion, Draluck said.
"At the beginning we were kind of nervous, because there were so many [freshmen]," Messersmith said. "But once we started playing, they work really hard, sometimes way harder than us when we have our off-days. It's really nice playing with them, because they always try hard no matter what."
Brown and fellow senior goalie Meaghan Kay each played a half and made two saves for the Sailors. Newport also benefited from the defense of Boler, Rosalie Deliz and Brenda Perez, as well as the play of sophomore Jessica Prather.
Draluck said after the game he was hoping Los Alamitos would give Edison its second league loss, which would leave Newport Harbor alone in second place. But it's hard to argue with a share of first place in league.
Tuesday's game at Edison is suddenly a first-place showdown. The Sailors will be without Jogwe, who will be on an official recruiting trip at Sacramento State. Jogwe, the Sailors' leading scorer the last two years, said she has also taken trips to The College of St. Rose in New York, as well as Cal State Fullerton.
"It's going to be tough," Draluck said. "We're going to go over there to the lion's den, and we'll see if we survive. What I want to see is my team compete."
Messersmith also said that will be important. Last year the Sailors started 5-1 in league before losing three of their last four games.
"We won most of the games at the beginning and we thought we just had it," Messersmith said. "I feel like we were relaxed every game, and we weren't working as a team. This year we have to stay focused and keep playing hard."