Casual water polo observers who don't know the intricacies of set defense still recognize Maddy McLaren.
Even with a water polo cap on, McLaren's red hair is easy to spot. The Newport Harbor High senior, who is so competitive in the pool, has sometimes wondered if that bit of notoriety has come with a price.
"I totally know that people [think] that, 'Oh, that's the redhead from Newport,'" she said. "Trying out for the national team I was almost more in the spotlight, just because I had red hair. I always wonder if that helped me or hindered me during tryouts. I felt like if I do something good, it's more noticeable, but if I do something bad it's more noticeable too. I stand out, which can be a good thing or a bad thing."
Her play has stood out lately, and it's been a great thing for the Sailors. Nobody really cared about the color of her hair last weekend, when McLaren was shutting down rival Corona del Mar at two meters in the championship match of the Irvine Southern California Championships.
McLaren had a match to remember. Again, the casual observer would notice that she only scored once. But the all-tournament team selection also had three assists, two field blocks and two steals before running off with many of her teammates to the school's winter formal dance at Knott's Berry Farm.
Defense is a specialty for the UCLA-bound McLaren, although she also leads the Sailors (23-4) with 58 goals scored. She's also tied for second in assists, with 18.
"She's a very versatile player," Coach Bill Barnett said. "She's also a very good counterattack player, she can set and she can drive. She's a multi-tasker."
She also is very tough.
Last year, she cracked a rib during the SoCal Championships, causing her to miss the end of the regular season. Last summer, McLaren broke her nose — twice — playing water polo. OnNew Year's Eve, she busted her lip open during the third-place match at the Holiday Cup. She was stitched up the same night by Dr. Lavinia Chong, the mother of CdM senior Pippa Saunders.
"I still hung out with my friends and stuff, but I couldn't really feel half my face," said McLaren, the Daily Pilot Athlete of the Week. "In all the photos I took, my smile is half-off. I mean, that's a sacrifice you have for having a tournamentNew Year's Eve."
The toughness is not an accident. McLaren said she got into the sport when she was younger when her twin older brothers, Jordan and Justin, would have friends over. She would play the sport with the boys in the McLarens' pool, beginning when they were in 10-and-unders.
Now those boys, like Matt Russell (Cal), Jack Yeager (Cal) and Zach Lucas (USC), are Division I college water polo players.
Maddy's father, Matt, played water polo at Newport Harbor and UC Irvine in the mid-1980s. Matt's younger sister, Maureen, was a three-sport star at Newport Harbor, playing volleyball and basketball and also swimming before graduating in 1992.
"Mo" McLaren went on to win a combined six NCAA titles at Stanford in volleyball and swimming. Maddy looked up to her aunt.
"When I was little, I wanted to be just like her," Maddy McLaren said. "She'd always come and stay with us. She was really my sports role model when I was younger, because she was super into being not the 'girly' girl, but the athletic girl.
"We have the same competitiveness, I'd say, not only in sports but in everyday things. I'm super-competitive, and I definitely get that from her. At ASB camp [last] summer, there was a volleyball tournament. It's supposed to be really fun and everything, but all I really wanted to do was win it."
Maddy McLaren has done plenty of winning in her high school career. She was on the varsity workout team as a freshman. As a sophomore she got a good amount of playing time, including in the CIF Southern Section Division I title match against Dos Pueblos.
McLaren said then-senior Kaleigh Gilchrist pulled her into the proper mind-set before the big game.
"I was a little goofy," McLaren said. "I remember Kaleigh looking at me and being like, 'Come on Maddy, let's do this.' She had to take the seniority role ... now going into CIF, I'm going to have to be the one with that seniority role. I think it will give me an advantage, playing in that game as a sophomore."
It is part of the reason why McLaren said she tries to be supportive of the Sailors' stud sophomore goalie, Cleo Harrington. She knows what it's like to be the sophomore on a team of older girls.
The 2010 Division I final itself was a very tough one to take for the Sailors. Newport Harbor couldn't hold a four-goal halftime lead.
"I can literally picture that game in my mind perfectly," McLaren said. "There are certain times in that game when I know I made a mistake, and I can just imagine it perfectly still today. It's just hard. It just gives you an extra fire that you want to win, because you know what it's like to lose in that game. You were so close. You just want to feel what it was like to be on the other side of that game.
"It's a totally different game. At CIF finals, there's hundreds of people there. You kind of have to block it out."
McLaren went on to lead Newport Harbor in scoring last year, earning first-team all-league and All-CIF laurels, and she's played on the USA Water Polo youth national team. She now hopes to make it back to Irvine's Woollett Aquatics Center in two weeks, for this year's championship match.
But for a job outside of water polo, she wants to be on the sidelines — literally. McLaren, who has a 4.2 grade-point average, said she wants to be a television sports sideline reporter.
McLaren has done her research like any reporter, watching hours of video with her teammates. She knows that this year there is no overwhelming favorite like Dos Pueblos. The Sunset League champion Sailors, ranked No. 2 in Division I, are definitely in the mix.
The Sailors can trust McLaren to play good defense in big moments. She's even done it in league games against her future UCLA teammates, Rachel Fattal of Los Alamitos and Alys Williams of Edison.
"She takes great pride in her defense," Barnett said. "She loves to be assigned the best player on the other team to guard."
At those times, McLaren stands out for much more than just her hair.
"It's something that's not really on a stat chart," McLaren said. "You really have to know the game. Sometimes that's a little frustrating almost [not getting as much credit], but you do it because defense wins games. You do it because you're part of a team and that's your job."
And, if there's one thing she has shown, it's that she's not afraid to put in work.
Born: June 21, 1994
Hometown: Costa Mesa
Sport: Water polo
Coach: Bill Barnett
Favorite food: Mom's rhubarb pie
Favorite movie: "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire"
Favorite athletic moment: Traveling to Hungary last summer with the USA Water Polo youth national team.
Week in review: McLaren scored 11 goals at the Irvine Southern California Championships, earning all-tournament honors and helping the Sailors beat rival CdM, 6-5, in the championship match.