IRVINE — You can excuse Corona del Mar High senior Pippa Saunders if she's been a little emotional lately.
Last weekend, she stood there crying on the Dos Pueblos High pool deck as her CdM girls' water polo team nearly lost in regulation before outlasting the host Chargers in overtime.
On Wednesday night at Woollett Aquatics Center, she swam as fast as she could toward sophomore Avery Warwick in the second overtime period. She gave Warwick a big hug, before splashing water on the sophomore.
Think Saunders wanted to get back to the CIF Southern Section Division 1 title match, the game she played in as a freshman?
The effort of Saunders and CdM's three other seniors — center Diana Murphy, defender Victoria Pierotti and goalie Alex Musselman — is a big reason why the Sea Kings are returning for the first time in three years.
Warwick still scored the biggest goal of the night, and her young career. Foothill left her open in that second overtime period.
She made the Knights pay, big time.
Warwick's blast from six meters with 1:55 left was the game-winner as CdM outlasted Foothill, 10-9, to get back to the title match. Top-seeded CdM (28-2) will play No. 2-seeded rival Newport Harbor in the title match at 7:45 p.m. Saturday, back at Woollett.
"I just had faith in myself, and I knew my teammates believed in me," Warwick said of her 10th goal of the season. "I knew I could do it. I just got up on my legs and put it away."
Warwick played the whole fourth quarter and all of overtime after junior Genevieve Weed (a goal, two assists, two steals) fouled out. Saunders also played the entire second half with two exclusions, but made defensive plays late for CdM with a pair of field blocks.
She said Coach Sam Bailey and assistant Brian Mericle give her a basketball analogy whenever she is in foul trouble. They tell her that Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant is sometimes in foul trouble, too.
"They just tell me you have to play like Kobe, through foul trouble," Saunders said. "I have to stay in for the team and play smart."
The seniors all stepped up. Murphy scored a game-high five goals for CdM. Pierotti, who had two assists, also played smart defense in the second half with Weed and Saunders in foul trouble. Musselman made 12 saves, including the final one at the end of overtime after a spectacular long shot from Foothill freshman Cana Manzella nearly found its mark.
Junior Ally McCormick added two goals and three assists for CdM, which was in a back-and-forth battle for much of the game. It was not unlike the teams' semifinal meeting last year, won by the Knights in overtime by the same 10-9 score.
Foothill Coach Jeff Colton said after the game that it seemed like deja vu. The difference was that this time CdM found a way to win.
Murphy scored four of her goals in the first half, which ended in a 6-6 tie.
"The Dos Pueblos game, my shots weren't really on," she said. "It really hit me that this was my last opportunity. I'm going to put all my effort into every single shot that I get. This is my last year. I just want to leave everything in the pool."
Colton couldn't fault his two seniors either, McKenna Mitchell and Jessie Porter. Each scored three goals for the Knights (24-6). Mitchell's shot from center with 3:19 left in the fourth quarter gave the Knights a 9-8 lead.
McCormick answered, skipping in a shot from five meters with 2:29 to play. The defense stiffened, as the Knights did not score in the final 9:19 of the contest.
"They survived a serious test up at Dos Pueblos," Bailey said of his Sea Kings, who have needed overtime to win their last two matches. "I think that they believe in each other and they believe in themselves. It's that experience that obviously pays off in overtime, especially against a team as talented and as well-coached as Foothill is."
Cassidy Papa drew three exclusions for CdM, which went three for seven on the power play. Foothill was two for six.
Saunders is the only current CdM player who played in that Division 1 final three years ago. The Sea Kings lost that game to Dos Pueblos, 3-2.
This year they hope for a different outcome. They want to be the first CdM girls' team to win a Division 1 title.
To get there, they'll have to beat a familiar opponent. CdM is 3-1 against Newport Harbor this season.
"Can you play one team more?" Bailey said. "We will have seen them in every tournament, and we played them once in the regular season. It's going to be a great game."