Girls' Water Polo Dream Team: McLaren helped Sailors to top

Maddy McLaren is super-competitive in just about everything she does.

More than just a defender for the Newport Harbor High girls' water polo team, the senior was the Sailors' leading scorer for the second straight year. More than just a player in the water, she acted as a coach at times, verbally telling her teammates what to do in certain game situations.

Not every situation was favorable for the Sailors. Not every person outside of the team believed. At the start of the regular season Newport Harbor was ranked No. 5 in the CIF Southern Section Division 1 coaches' poll — respectable, but low for the perennial powerhouse.

"The rankings totally do affect how you think about all the teams," McLaren said. "Ultimately, I wanted to win and I had that determination going. Realistically, I was confident that we were going to do the best that we could do, but I wasn't sure if that was going to be winning CIF."

During the regular season the Sailors dealt with more adversity. They played rival Corona del Mar four times and lost the first three meetings, squandering a halftime lead each time. Even after the Sailors broke through to win the Irvine Southern California Championships, beating CdM in the final, the Sea Kings were awarded the top overall seed in the playoffs.

The teams met again for all the marbles on Feb. 25 at Irvine's Woollett Aquatics Center. Despite coming into the CIF championship match with a 15-game winning streak, most people seemed to consider the Sailors a slight underdog.

McLaren, the Newport-Mesa Dream Team Player of the Year, kept working. Few could match that work ethic. In the final quarter of the season, it all paid off.

She scored twice in that fourth quarter, helping the Sailors engineer a thrilling 8-7 comeback victory over CdM for the Division 1 title. The No. 5 was again relevant at the end of the season, but this time it was because Newport Harbor (27-5) had won its fifth CIF girls' water polo championship.

The UCLA-bound redhead, Newport Harbor's lone repeat Dream Team selection, reveled in the victory. As always, she was thoughtful. In the days after the victory, she talked about experiencing a little bit of everything. In her four-year high school career, Newport Harbor lost in the CIF semifinals, lost in the finals, lost in the quarterfinals and finally won the title.

McLaren provided valuable leadership for Newport Harbor. The Sunset League co-Player of the Year helped the Sailors win the league title despite immense challenges from Los Alamitos and Edison, guarding center standouts like her future UCLA teammates Rachel Fattal and Alys Williams each time. McLaren, a first-team CIF Southern Section Division 1 selection for the second straight year, also led Newport with 72 goals.

McLaren also earned all-tournament team honors at both the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions and the SoCal Championships.

Newport Harbor Coach Bill Barnett talked during the season about this being his best team, as far as everyone embracing her role and meshing. McLaren definitely had more than one of those roles.

"She's a very good all-around player and an extremely hard worker," Barnett said. "I really think her forte is defense, but with her speed and her experience, she's also a very outstanding offensive player."

The super-competitive McLaren can be super-proud of the way her high school career ended.

"I'm glad that, at least once, I got to win CIF," she said. "I came out to play high school water polo to win a CIF championship, and that's what I got to do."

The Back Bay Division 1 final was part of a banner year in Newport-Mesa for girls' water polo. Here's a look at the other 13 players on the 2011-12 Dream Team:

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Alex Musselman

Corona del Mar

After earning Newport-Mesa Dream Team Player of the Year accolades as a junior, the UCLA-bound Musselman offered quite an encore as a senior. Musselman made 291 saves for Corona del Mar (28-3), finishing with an Orange County-record 891 saves in her high school career. The Pacific Coast League MVP and a first-team All-CIF selection, Musselman anchored the defense for Coach Sam Bailey's Sea Kings and also sparked the offense with her counterattack passing skills, helping CdM maintain the top ranking for most of the season and advance to the CIF title match.

Musselman, named the Outstanding Goalie at the Irvine Southern California Championships, also provided one of the most memorable moments of this — or any other — high school season. She scored full-tank at the fourth-quarter buzzer to lift CdM to an unbelievable 6-5 comeback victory at Newport Harbor in the Battle of the Bay match.

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Presley Pender

Newport Harbor

Pender, a University of Michigan-bound senior captain, came up huge in the CIF championship match. Her two goals from the perimeter helped spark the Sailors' dramatic comeback. One of many dangerous outside shooters for the Sailors, Pender was also an excellent defensive player for Newport Harbor, able to get back on the counterattack and limit opponents' drives.

Pender, a first-team All-Sunset League and second-team All-CIF selection, had 43 goals and 30 steals this season.

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Kellie Thorsness

Costa Mesa

Thorsness had a big junior year as a two-meter player for the Mustangs, scoring a team-high 88 goals and adding a team-best 52 steals. The 88 goals ranks Thorsness third on the Mesa all-time single-season list, just in front of her older sister Katie.

Kellie Thorsness was difficult to guard at two meters for Coach Tim Postiff's Mustangs (11-12), as well as dangerous on the counterattack. The first-team All-Orange Coast League selection scored six goals in a 7-6 league victory over rival Estancia and helped the young Mustangs make the playoffs for the ninth time in 10 years.

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Diana Murphy

Corona del Mar

Murphy, a senior center, really seemed to get going at the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions, where she earned MVP honors after helping the Sea Kings win the title. For the season, the Princeton-bound Murphy tied for the CdM team lead with 81 goals and added 43 steals. Bailey credited Murphy's continued improvement as a big part of CdM's success, as she was able to hold position at two meters and constantly drew double-teams or even triple-teams.

Murphy, a first-team All-Pacific Coast League and first-team All-CIF selection, helped CdM win its 13th straight league title. She was an all-tournament team selection at the Irvine Southern California Championships and is a repeat Dream Team selection.

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Carly Christian

Newport Harbor

Christian's speed gave the Sailors their best counterattack threat, but the junior was also very well-rounded. One of the team's best shooters and passers, Christian tallied 56 goals, second on Newport Harbor, and added a team-best 32 assists as well as 44 steals. She also scored a huge power-play goal in the fourth quarter of the CIF final, giving the Sailors a two-goal advantage.

The driver was first-team All-Sunset League and also first-team All-CIF. She was also on the all-tournament team at the Irvine Southern California Championships.

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Ilene Umansky

Estancia

As the year went on, teams began to game plan more and more against Umansky. But the Eagles' junior never stopped scoring. She finished the year with 119 goals, an Estancia single-season record and fourth in Orange County.

Coach Jennifer Broderick said Umansky, a first-team All-Orange Coast League selection, picked up water polo from scratch during high school. Next year she could lead Estancia (12-13), which finished fourth in league, back to the playoffs.

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Pippa Saunders

Corona del Mar

The senior co-captain played a different role this year for the Sea Kings, not scoring quite as many goals for CdM but really stepping it up defensively and setting up her teammates. Saunders, bound for Cal, was another passionate senior leader for CdM and an extremely hard worker.

Saunders, a first-team all-league and second-team All-CIF selection, also was an all-tournament team selection at both the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions and the Irvine Southern California Championships. A repeat Dream Team selection, Saunders had 57 goals, 29 assists and a team-best 46 steals.

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Avery Peterson

Newport Harbor

Physically imposing with her height and long arms, Peterson had a breakout-type junior season and regularly got the job done on two-meter defense for the Sailors. She had one of her best games in the CIF semifinal win over Laguna Beach in overtime, when she had a career-high six steals and scored a tie-breaking goal in overtime.

Peterson, who was a second-team All-Sunset League and second-team All-CIF selection, finished the year with 47 goals and a team-high 58 steals. She was an all-tournament team selection at the Irvine Southern California Championships.

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Aubry Hill

Costa Mesa

Hill typically had the important assignment of guarding the other team's best player, and she didn't disappoint for the Mustangs in her junior year. She contributed across the board, as she was second on the team in goals (35) and steals (34), and led Mesa with 32 assists.

Aubry Hill, whose younger sister Kaitlyn was also a key contributor at goalie for Mesa, was a first-team All-Orange Coast League selection.

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Cassidy Papa

Corona del Mar

The junior driver used both her athleticism, as well as her intelligence, to really benefit the Sea Kings this season. Bailey said he thinks Papa sees and understands the game as well as anybody in high school water polo. The praise was easy to understand after Papa racked up a co-team high 81 goals and added 43 assists and 43 steals.

Papa, a powerful outside shooter and always a dangerous counterattack threat, also earned first-team All-Pacific Coast League and second-team All-CIF honors. She is a repeat Dream Team selection.

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Elissia Schilling

Newport Harbor

The junior center became dominant at two meters over the course of the year. She also picked up a well-earned reputation for clutch play. Schilling scored a season-high five goals in the Sailors' huge Sunset League victory over Los Alamitos. Twice she also scored the game-winning goal in sudden-death overtime against Laguna Beach, including in the quarterfinals at the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions, where she earned all-tournament team status.

Schilling finished the year with 45 goals, 20 assists and 34 steals. She was first-team All-Sunset League and also first-team All-CIF.

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Ally McCormick

Corona del Mar

The lone lefty on the Dream Team, a junior driver, was much more than just that. Scoring, passing, aggressive defense, counterattacking — McCormick could do it all for CdM. For the second year in a row, the gifted passer led the Pacific Coast League in assists with 65. She also scored 62 goals.

McCormick, another player who is lethal on the counterattack, was a first-team all-league and second-team All-CIF honoree. Like all of the other four CdM players on the Dream Team, this is her second straight selection.

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Cleo Harrington

Newport Harbor

Harrington, the only sophomore for the CIF champions as well as the only sophomore on the Dream Team, certainly came a long way. In her first year on varsity she always played with a lot of confidence, and by the end of the year she earned a reputation alongside Musselman as one of the best goalies in Southern California. Harrington seemed to play her best in big games and finished the year with an area-best 314 saves.

Harrington earned second-team All-Sunset League and second-team All-CIF status.

matthew.szabo@latimes.com

Twitter: @mjszabo

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