CORONA DEL MAR — Emily Loughlin surprised the Corona del Mar High girls' water polo team at the start of Friday's nonleague game.
The 6-foot tall Santa Margarita junior center spun her defender and scored the game's first goal. Loughlin then drew a penalty shot, which she converted.
Loughlin's goals were no laughing matter for CdM, which found itself down two goals less than two minutes into the game. But the Sea Kings adjusted.
The Eagles were only able to double that output over the next 26-plus minutes. CdM took control, earning a 10-4 victory in its final regular-season game before the CIF Southern Section Division I playoffs.
"I don't think we were prepared for the talent of [Loughlin] and her strength," CdM Coach Sam Bailey said. "That's as strong a center as I've seen in CIF. I think that once the girls realized that it was going to be a competitive challenge to really defend this team, they definitely made an adjustment with their intensity and their concentration. They were definitely able to put together a team defense to slow down Santa Margarita."
Adjustments are good for a coach to see before CIF begins. Brackets will be released Sunday and Bailey's team is currently ranked No. 1 in Division I, as it has been for the majority of the regular season.
The team defense was evident for CdM (25-2). The Sea Kings held Santa Margarita (14-14), ranked No. 9 in Division II, to one for five in its extra-player opportunities.
"We're been really fortunate," Bailey said. "The girls who typically don't get a lot of playing time during varsity games have been incredibly competitive during practices. Our ability to practice our six-on-five against a challenging five-man team in practice, it's been beneficial for our six-on-five offense. Conversely, our ability to practice our five-man defense against a really competitive six-on-five offense has been tremendous."
Cassidy Papa and Diana Murphy each had a team-high four goals for CdM, which had a 4-2 lead by the end of the first quarter despite the early deficit. Ally McCormick added two goals and three steals.
Victoria Pierotti, Genevieve Weed and Marina Coskinas added steals for CdM, which was active defensively. Loughlin still did draw multiple exclusions and fouled out CdM utility player Pippa Saunders late in the third quarter, but she was unable to score again. Senior goalie Alex Musselman made 10 saves.
Her last save was the best, quickly ranging to her left to stop a shot in the final two minutes of the contest.
Pierotti, a senior defender who has committed to play at Brown University, said the Sea Kings have improved on the defensive side.
"We've been working a lot on guarding backhands and sweep shots, specific shots out of center," Pierotti said. "I think that was our main focus in practice this week. We focused a lot on set defense, because we knew that was something we needed to work on. I think everyone did a really good job this game. We started playing really good team defense after the second quarter."
The Sea Kings were able to show their depth. Sophomores Avery Warwick and Coskinas got a lot of run in Friday's game.
"They've earned it," Bailey said. "They show day in and day out at practice that they're capable and deserving."
Sophomore Haley Wan had a goal and four steals for Santa Margarita, which trailed just 6-4 at halftime. But CdM got two goals from Papa in the third quarter, as well as an outside strike from McCormick, to open up a 9-4 advantage.
Some have said that rival Newport Harbor deserves the No. 1 seed in CIF after capturing the Irvine Southern California Championships last weekend, defeating CdM in the championship match. But the Sea Kings had beat the Sailors in the teams' previous three meetings this year.
Papa said she believes her team deserves the top seed, although the importance of that spot may be diminished in a year where all of the top eight teams appear to be very tough.
"I think we've earned it, but in all honestly, we'll take any team in any round," Papa said. "Every game's a championship game in CIF. We've got to go in nameless faceless ... It's going to be fun. It's really exciting. We've been preparing like crazy for this all season, for longer than anyone knows.
"I think it's just going to be fun to see how everything lays out. Every team's going to have their opportunity. Every team's going to need to show it from the quarterfinals on."