IRVINE — They were underdogs in the second game of their season, when they were ranked No. 5 in CIF and stunned Foothill on the road without senior Maddy McLaren.
In the eyes of many they were underdogs in the last game of their season, when they played top-seeded Corona del Mar for a CIF championship.
In between, the Newport Harbor High girls' water polo team became what legendary coach Bill Barnett said was the most cohesive girls' team he has ever coached.
Every girl played her role to perfection. The No. 2-seeded Sailors got the ultimate reward on Saturday night at Woollett Aquatics Center.
They completed a stirring comeback in the fourth quarter, coming from three goals down to defeat CdM, 8-7. They won the program's fifth CIF Southern Section Division 1 championship.
Some players wondered if Barnett, 69, would jump in the pool after the game.
"I shouldn't have," Barnett said. "But I had to, since my assistant coach [Brian Melstrom] did."
He was happy to do so, after the Sailors completed their stunning comeback when sophomore goalie Cleo Harrington stole an entry pass into two meters in the closing seconds. Newport Harbor had trailed, 6-4, going into the fourth quarter.
"We were nervous that someone was going to tackle him in and just fully hurt him," McLaren said. "But it all worked out for the best. He was definitely a team player."
Talk about team players. Just in the fourth quarter, there were so many heroes for the Sailors (27-4), who ended the year on a 16-match winning streak. They wouldn't be denied in the fifth Battle of the Bay meeting of the season.
McLaren started it off with a skip shot from five meters, bringing the Sailors within a goal just 15 seconds into the quarter. Then it was senior captain Presley Pender, who buried a shot from five meters into the left corner to knot the score at 6-6 with 5:53 left.
"I knew they were going to drop on me from [the] four [spot]," Pender said. "I just knew I needed to put my shots away. We watched so much film on Alex [Musselman], and exactly where to shoot. Literally, in my head, I was just like, 'Corners! Corners!'"
Then it was the turn of sophomore goalie Cleo Harrington to come up huge. After making a save, she fired a perfect counterattack ball to Carly Christian, who earned a five-meter penalty shot. McLaren converted it, giving Newport a 7-6 advantage with 3:39 left.
"That was such a beautiful pass," Christian said. "Perfect. Right into the hand. Frickin' beautiful."
CdM got a power-play chance, but a shot went off the bar. Then the Sailors got their own opportunity when junior center Elissia Schilling drew her fifth exclusion of the game. Christian put away the shot on extra from the left side, and the surging Tars had an 8-6 advantage.
Newport finished the game just two-for-seven on its power-play, but the last one was the biggest.
"That was great," Barnett said of the fourth-quarter comeback. "That was incredible. That just shows how much the girls put into their conditioning, to get in the proper shape to do that."
One person who couldn't believe it was former CdM Coach Aaron Chaney, who had led the Sea Kings (28-3) to five CIF titles but never a Division 1 crown. Chaney watched the action after he said flew in from Hawaii Saturday morning, just to see his former players in their attempt to make history.
Instead, it proved too similar to the other time the teams played in the Division 1 final, in 2008, when CdM could not hold a three-goal lead in the fourth quarter and lost in overtime.
"I don't think there's anything you can tell the girls," CdM Coach Sam Bailey said. "You've got to believe, and I think we all do, that we did everything we could to put ourselves in a position to win … At the end of the day, they had an outstanding fourth quarter. It changed the season."
CdM tried to draw closer. Musselman fed junior Cassidy Papa, who fired in a quick goal to bring the Sea Kings within 8-7 with 1:39 left. They looked to tie it up as well, but Pender stole the ball from CdM senior Pippa Saunders at two meters with just less than a minute to go.
CdM got the ball back with 26 seconds left and played it in to Saunders at set. But the Sailors immediately crashed. With three defenders coming, Saunders kicked it out to the left. A pass back into two meters in the closing seconds was easily stolen by Harrington (10 saves).
Junior Avery Peterson also scored twice for the Sailors, and senior Sophie Leveque netted the Sailors' other power-play strike in the first quarter.
Diana Murphy, Saunders and Papa led CdM with two goals each. Junior lefty Ally McCormick also had a strong game with a goal and a game-high three steals. Musselman made 10 saves.
CdM, which led at halftime for the first time in the teams' five meetings, was just seven minutes away from the title. In the end, it was just one quarter that undid the Sea Kings and lifted the Sailors.
"It just shows our enthusiasm and our determination, for this game and through the whole season," Schilling said. "Nothing will stop us. We did not give up when we were down by two. Our coaches were remarking on finishing. It's all about finishing."
For McLaren, sitting on the cold cement before the fourth quarter began, there was so much motivation. She was the only current player who played in Newport's last title-game appearance, when it lost a big lead against Dos Pueblos in 2010.
"I was having flashbacks of standing on the pool deck, watching the other team push their coach in after we lost two years ago," McLaren said. "I was like, 'I'm not going to be in that position again.' I talked to the team about it before the game. It was the worst feeling. I said I would have rather lost on Wednesday [in the semifinals] than lost tonight."
The Sailors nearly lost both games. They trailed Saturday, 6-3, late in the third. Nobody said life as an underdog would be easy. But for the Sailors, it only made it sweeter in the end.
"It gave us motivation," McLaren said. "People didn't think we were going to be here. People didn't think we were going to be top five. Let's prove them wrong, in every way we can, by winning CIF … Nobody thought we were going to be here, except us. Let's prove it to them, and let's prove it to ourselves."
Barnett proved he would jump into the water. The talk was that he might go out on top by retiring after Saturday's match.
"I haven't thought about that," Barnett said. "I still enjoy it. It's fun working with the girls. It's like a hobby for me."
Winning CIF championships is one hobby that can never grow old.
"It's one game, but it's a season," McLaren said. "For us it's three or four years of work, just to get to one game."
The Sailors made the most of it.