Girls' Water Polo: Locals go for JO gold

The last two selections for Newport-Mesa Dream Team Player of the Year in girls' water polo were Corona del Mar High graduate Alex Musselman and Newport Harbor High graduate Maddy McLaren.

Musselman and McLaren will be teammates at UCLA. But first, this summer they are playing on a different sort of dream team.

The reality is that the SOCAL Black team that features Musselman, McLaren and CdM graduates Pippa Saunders (Cal), Diana Murphy (Princeton) and Victoria Pierotti (Brown) is a strong contender for the ultimate prize among junior club water polo teams.

SOCAL Black is the top-seeded 18-and-under girls' team for the USA Water Polo Junior Olympics, which begin Thursday in the Bay Area and continue through Sunday.

Newport Harbor and CdM met for the CIF Southern Section Division 1 title in February, with the Sailors storming back in the fourth quarter for an 8-7 victory. And, while the participants in that game likely won't soon forget it, this is a new team.

"I love it," said McLaren, a defender who recently helped the U.S. Youth National team finish third in an international tournament in Hungary. "It's so cool how we could be such rivals at the end of the season last year, and go into the next season and be teammates. We have no bitterness toward each other. We went straight from that huge rivalry and that huge last game to being teammates again. It kind of shows that everything is left in the water. That season has passed, and we're on to something new. I love playing for SOCAL. It's one of my favorite teams I've ever played on."

It's easy to see why. SOCAL could be defined as a verifiable Orange County all-star team. The squad also features players like Foothill graduates McKenna Mitchell (UC Irvine) and Jessie Porter (UC Santa Barbara), as well as Los Alamitos graduate Rachel Fattal (UCLA) and rising Foothill sophomore Cana Manzella.

To say the team is deep might be an understatement. Starters include Saunders, McLaren, Fattal, Porter, Mitchell and Manzella, with Musselman in goal.

Since CdM and Newport Harbor keep their high school players together year-round, program graduates often attach themselves to other club teams before playing in college. Last summer Newport graduate Catherine Carpenter, now at Stanford, played for SOCAL. Newport graduate Sarah Wilkey played in goal and won a gold medal with Huntington Beach Water Polo Club.

McLaren was familiar with SOCAL after first playing for them with Carpenter during the spring 2011 swim season. The CdM girls said they decided they all wanted to play for the same club team this summer, too.

"It's kind of getting you ready for college," Musselman said. "You're leaving high school and you're still with some of your friends, but you're with some different people too. It's kind of a change-up.

"The cool thing about our club team is that we're with a bunch of girls from a bunch of different schools. Water polo's such a small world, so it's not like we won't be seeing them around. It's fun to have a broader spectrum of friends."

Past Junior Olympics have meant a chance to mesh together prior to fall night league games and the winter high school schedule. Now, the Junior Olympics mean the end of the club season for these young women before they head off to college.

Last year, Musselman, Saunders, Murphy and Pierotti were on the CdM Aquatics team that finished a respectable ninth in the 18U bracket. McLaren helped guide the Newport Water Polo Foundation girls to a 13th-place finish.

Now, the stakes are raised.

"We'll go into every game like it's the championship game," said Murphy, a center. "We lost to Santa Barbara in the club championships, so that added fuel to our fire, losing to them."

Indeed, the road to gold won't be easy. Santa Barbara, the No. 2-seeded team, features players like Dos Pueblos graduate Kodi Hill (UCLA) and Santa Barbara High graduate Charlotte Hendrix (Harvard). The team also includes incoming Santa Barbara High senior studs Maddie Trabucco (a goalie) and Kelsey O'Brien, as well as Dos Pueblos incoming senior star Jamie Neushul. Last year, Santa Barbara lost to Wilkey and Huntington Beach, 6-5, in the 18U title match.

Santa Barbara has defeated SOCAL twice in the past couple of months, including in the title match of the aforementioned U.S. Club Championships in San Diego on July 8. Saunders said SOCAL lost both games by a single goal.

McLaren said she would love to head into life as a Bruin by winning a gold medal. It's something that she never really thought about in the past.

"I always laughed during meetings when we're like, 'OK, let's try to win JOs,'" McLaren said. "That thought has never actually gone through my mind being a high school team in the summer. Now, being a very dominant club team, it's the opposite of what I'm used to. It's pretty funny ... It's a huge deal to me now."

The Junior Olympics feature CdM and Newport girls' teams in various age divisions. The CdM 18U girls, who won the California State High School Championships on July 22, are seeded ninth. The Newport 18U girls are seeded 13th.

Twitter: @mjszabo

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