Musselman, Harrington in spotlight

Alex Musselman is a known quantity in girls' water polo. The Corona del Mar High senior goalie, a three-year starter who committed to UCLA last April, was the Newport-Mesa Player of the Year as a junior.

Cleo Harrington is the first-year starter for Newport Harbor in the cage. She is a sophomore. In high school sports, that's a word that's sometimes used in front of a name to temper expectations.

Not with Harrington, who has established herself alongside Musselman. They are perhaps the top two goalies in the CIF Southern Section.

Laguna Beach Coach Ethan Damato wouldn't argue with that, especially after Harrington had 17 saves in Wednesday night's Division 1 semifinal win over his Breakers.

"I haven't played Alex Musselman," Damato said. "I think the best goalie I've seen is Cleo Harrington. I thought she played another outstanding game [Wednesday]."

Maybe it's just like Coke vs. Pepsi, the Rolling Stones vs. the Beatles. Maybe there doesn't need to be any superiority between the two players.

Simply put, Musselman and Harrington are both studs. On Saturday night at 7:45, when No. 1-seeded Corona del Mar battles No. 2 Newport Harbor at Woollett Aquatics Center for the CIF crown, it will be their time to shine.

At just about 6-foot tall, Musselman is about three inches taller than Harrington. But they do have similarities. Both are very humble. One could even say both are great role models; Musselman has two younger sisters and Harrington two younger brothers.

The two young women don't know each other too well. They formally met Friday morning — at the photo shoot for this article.

But Musselman, who was named the Most Outstanding Goalie at the Irvine Southern California Championships three weeks ago, has no problem sharing the limelight with Harrington.

"It is kind of similar, because she's starting as a sophomore," Musselman said. "She's very talented, and I think she's going to go very far in water polo. When I saw her, I was like 'She's really, really good.' I think she's definitely one of the best goalies in CIF. And she's just a sophomore. She's so young. She has so much time to get so much better.

"I think she plays with a lot of confidence, which is a really good thing when you're a goalie, especially when she's so young."

The goalies are in different spots in their prep careers, but Musselman can still remember what it was like when she was the one starting as a sophomore. She said it doesn't seem so long ago. Now that strong senior class that has played together for so long, also including Pippa Saunders (Cal), Diana Murphy (Princeton) and Victoria Pierotti (Brown), is getting ready for its final high school game.

Musselman called the feeling weird.

"I couldn't really say [sophomore year] feels like so long ago," she said, laughing, "because I feel like I'm still little."

The same cannot be said about her game. Just ask her teammates what it's like shooting on Musselman in practice.

"When she gets in the zone it's so frustrating," Pierotti said. "Literally none of our shots go in. It's really intense. She basically can block everything."

Harrington has also shown her greatness. Coming up in polo, she has had to share time in goal. Her eighth-grade year she shared time with Carlee Kapana, a current freshman at Harbor who is also a very talented goalie and has played for the Cadet national team.

Last year, Harrington played frosh-soph and shared time with Tara Jacobson. But she has quickly stepped into the spotlight. The girl who said she originally wanted to play volleyball has played with so much confidence this year, a self-assuredness that defies her age.

Harrington doesn't turn 16 until Wednesday, Feb. 29. She's a leap-year baby. It is clear her game has leaped forward as well.

"Her development has greatly helped our team, to say the least," Sailors Coach Bill Barnett said. "She's definitely one of the reasons why we're in the finals."

Harrington credits her teammates for being so supportive. She is the only sophomore on Newport Harbor's varsity roster, but you wouldn't know it by watching the Sailors interact.

"I feel like I've come a long way," Harrington said. "It's not like I'm watching myself, you know, but I feel a lot more confident in games. I just love being in there. I feel like it's easier for me now to recognize my weaknesses and work on those. I used to get so frustrated."

Now Harrington works through those. She said she had problems with near-side shots. For several days, Sailors junior Carly Christian worked with Harrington after practice on that area.

Musselman and Harrington were both involved in a key play in the teams' first Battle of the Bay matchup this season. Musselman scored full-tank at the regulation buzzer, giving CdM a stunning victory. The shot went over the head of Harrington, who had been at mid-tank following a Sailors timeout.

Harrington said she took the loss hard. Both Barnett and her mother, Kelly, told her to snap out of it.

"It happens," Harrington said. "You've just got to learn from it. It was a good learning experience. Now I never hesitate after I pass the ball, I just get back as fast as I can ... My mom just said, 'Remember this feeling, remember that it sucks, and don't do it again.' That's all you can do."

Harrington said it's an honor to be compared to someone like Musselman. The CdM keeper showed off her very strong arm on that play. It's an arm that also benefits the Sea Kings on the counterattack.

"Alex does an outstanding job of really anchoring the defense," CdM Coach Sam Bailey said. "She's a leader in all of the three — mind, body and spirit. Her presence in the goal does a lot, I think, to contribute to our team's defensive confidence. Her passing does a lot to contribute to our team's offensive confidence."

"Confidence" is a word that can always be used to describe both Musselman and Harrington. Just ask Newport senior defender Maddy McLaren, who will be teammates with Musselman at UCLA but has also developed a ton of respect for her Newport Harbor teammate as well.

"She's very headstrong, and she's very calm," McLaren said of Harrington. "That gives her the poise in the game, to play well the whole time. She's very calm during big games, which you wouldn't expect from a sophomore or a goalie. She's kind of defying both of those stereotypes, which is good."

So yes, Musselman and Harrington have some similarities and some differences. But, depending on which side you're rooting for at the CIF championship match, they will both be extremely easy to support.

Their hard work has them in the spotlight for one last night this season, two of the best goalies in CIF who want so badly to win that ring.

matthew.szabo@latimes.com

Twitter: @mjszabo

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