Revenge of the Sailors

IRVINE — It has become almost a tradition for the Newport Harbor High girls' water polo team every year.

Finish the Irvine Southern California Championships tournament, then sprint off the pool deck to prepare for the winter formal dance that night.

Few times have the Sailors been as happy making that exit as they were Saturday. It was easy to understand why their smiles were so big as they prepared to head over to Knott's Berry Farm.

Montezuma wasn't the only one who got revenge on this day.

Newport Harbor used a strong defensive effort to top rival Corona del Mar, 6-5, in the championship match at Woollett Aquatics Center. It was the Sailors' first victory against their rivals in four meetings this season.

All-tournament team selections Maddy McLaren, Avery Peterson and Carly Christian consistently made plays for the Sailors (21-4), who have now won 10 straight since losing to CdM in the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions final Jan. 14. But it was a team effort. The Newport faithful couldn't exhale until goalie Cleo Harrington grabbed a lob shot from the left by CdM's Cassidy Papa at the final buzzer.

Seniors Diana Murphy and Pippa Saunders were all-tournament team selections for CdM. Goalie Alex Musselman, who made 12 saves in the final, earned the tournament's Outstanding Goalie award.

The Sailors still finally found a way to get the job done. Even Coach Bill Barnett had to smile as he watched them scamper off the deck.

"I was very proud of the girls, because they have that stupid dance tonight," he said with a laugh. "I think their focus to play as well as they did, considering their mind at times I'm sure was at the dance, I think it says a lot about their maturity."

Each team had impressive semifinal victories Saturday morning. CdM took out Foothill, 11-8, in the teams' first meeting of the season. Newport Harbor beat Laguna Beach, 7-4, to improve to 3-0 this year against the Breakers.

Once the rivals were in the final, Newport Harbor took control, handing CdM (23-2) just its second loss of the season and snapping the Sea Kings' 18-game winning streak.

The Sailors took a 3-2 halftime lead behind two goals from Christian and one from junior Allyson Hall, a nice backhand strike after a give-and-go with Christian.

Leading CdM at halftime was nothing new for the Sailors. They had done so in each of the teams' first three meetings, losing each time. This game was different.

"We knew that they were going to come out hard every single quarter to try to get back at us," said Christian, who had game-highs of three goals and three steals. "But we didn't let them do that. We were so pumped ... we just kept going. Our offense was really, really good; we found the open people. It was a great team effort."

The Sailors widened the lead in the third quarter. After Papa tied the score with her second goal of the game, Elissia Schilling and McLaren each scored from center, making it a 5-3 advantage for Newport.

McLaren also made a couple of crucial defensive plays later in the quarter. Saunders drew an exclusion, but McLaren rushed back to cause a ball-under turnover. On CdM's next possession, she made a field block on Murphy.

"Newport's coached by probably the best coach in the nation," CdM Coach Sam Bailey said of Barnett, a two-time U.S. men's national team Olympic coach. "With that, you've got to expect that they're going to have outstanding fundamentals, and center defense is probably the most important fundamental aspect of the game. Credit their athleticism and outstanding coaching."

The Sailors widened the lead midway through the fourth, as Christian scored her third goal on the power play. CdM still nearly came back again.

Murphy scored her lone goal with 1:38 left, then junior Genevieve Weed added a power-play strike with 33 seconds left to bring CdM within 6-5. The Sea Kings got the ball back with four seconds left, but Harrington's ninth save sealed the Sailors' win.

"It's great," McLaren said. "They're our crosstown rivals, and it's the end of the season. Going into CIF, we know that we can beat them if we play our game."

Murphy led CdM with four goals in the semifinal win over Foothill, and Saunders also had a strong game with three goals and four steals. Ally McCormick scored twice, and Papa and senior Victoria Pierotti added single goals. Musselman made 14 saves as CdM held Foothill to just two-for-11 on the player-advantage.

"I think our five-man's really, really improving," Musselman said. "We've been practicing it a lot."

CdM held Newport Harbor to two-for-seven on the power play in the final. CdM converted two of five chances.

Senior Presley Pender scored twice for the Sailors in their semifinal victory over Laguna Beach. Peterson and Christian each scored once, and they had strong defensive games with five and three steals, respectively. Sophie Leveque and Hall also added goals.

Harrington had nine saves against the Breakers, including one on a penalty shot.

"Today against Laguna and against Corona, I thought we played really excellent defense," Barnett said. "We had a lot of shot blocks, and a lot of just good play."

Newport Harbor will now focus on its final Sunset League game Wednesday night against Edison, a team that has been playing well lately. The Chargers pushed CdM in a SoCal quarterfinal loss and finished seventh overall at the tournament. The Sailors need the win to clinch the outright league title.

If they can beat Edison, the Sailors may have made a strong case for the top overall seed in the CIF Southern Section Division I playoffs. Then again, top-ranked CdM did win those first three games against Newport Harbor.

"I don't know what's going to happen." Bailey said. "There's two arguments that can very easily be made ... I think each argument is equally as strong."

The only other time Newport Harbor won the SoCal tournament, in 2008, the Sailors also topped CdM in the final. That year, the Sailors went on to win the Division I title.

At this point, though, Barnett is not worried about CIF.

"I'm worried about Wednesday's game against Edison," he said. "If we don't win that, CIF could be very, very difficult. The only focus we have right now is Wednesday night's game."

Barnett now knows he can trust his team not to lose its focus. Beating a Back Bay rival is a task that's easy to get excited about.

"We wanted to beat them so bad," Christian said. "We knew that this was our game."

Laguna Beach edged Foothill, 6-5, in the tournament's third-place game. Los Alamitos senior Rachel Fattal was named the tournament's Outstanding Field Player.

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