Girls' Water Polo: Newport Harbor wins epic battle against Laguna Beach

LAGUNA BEACH — It has been more than two decades now since Bill Barnett coached Erich Fischer at the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain.

Team USA lost in the semifinals that year on the way to a fourth-place finish.

On Saturday afternoon it was Fischer's daughter, Makenzie, who nearly sent Barnett's high school team home a round earlier in an upset loss.

Makenzie Fischer, a sophomore at Laguna Beach High, scored a match-high six goals for the Breakers in the CIF Southern Section Division 1 quarterfinal match. Don't be surprised if she's on the Olympic team one day like her dad. In front of a standing-room only crowd, she was the best player in the water.

It took extra time, but the defending champion Sailors still move on.

Senior Carolyn Smith and junior Christina O'Beck scored in overtime as No. 4-seeded Newport Harbor held on for an epic 11-10 victory at the Breakers' pool.

Newport Harbor (23-6) plays top-seeded Santa Barbara in the semifinals Wednesday night at Irvine's Woollett Aquatics Center. The Dons defeated Irvine, 13-4, in another quarterfinal match Saturday.

The Sailors did not lead their quarterfinal until the final minute of the fourth quarter. The match was nothing like the Sailors' 10-4 nonleague victory over Laguna Beach (19-10) three weeks earlier at the same pool.

"I was very impressed with their intensity," Barnett said of the Breakers. "They certainly came to play hard."

Laguna Beach set the tone in the opening quarter, taking a 5-3 lead. Fischer had four of the goals, including one on a penalty shot that she drew.

Newport Harbor, which was led in scoring by O'Beck with four goals and senior co-captain Carly Christian with three, would tie the score six times in the match. The first five times, Laguna managed to take the lead again.

"I thought we showed a lot of resilience and a lot of toughness today," Laguna Coach Ethan Damato said. "That's just really indicative of this group of girls … We were really confident that we would be able to come out here and do what we did today. I'm really proud of the girls. I thought we did everything we needed to do to win the game."

The sixth time Newport tied the score was when Christian scored cross-cage from the right with 6:05 left in the fourth quarter, tying the score at 8-8. Laguna again tried to take the lead but O'Beck made plays on defense, getting a field block in a five-on-six situation before causing a ball-under on Harvard-bound Laguna senior Lexi Del Toro in front of the cage.

Christian finally scored again, taking the pass from senior Avery Peterson and skipping in a goal with 35 seconds left in regulation. But there was Fischer again, scoring off a foul just eight seconds later to send the game to overtime.

"At quarter breaks, we knew we were behind, but we weren't trying to focus on that," O'Beck said. "We kept saying, 'It's a new game' … We just tried to come back and say it's a new game, 0-0. That's what we did going into the overtime."

Smith struck on a lob from the left in the first three-minute overtime period, pumping her fist after she again gave the Sailors the lead. Then, controversy ensued after Fischer was called for an offensive foul. She kept going after the ball and was excluded, despite the protests of the Laguna fans. O'Beck took advantage, scoring on the six-on-five giving Newport Harbor an 11-9 advantage with 1:23 left.

Damato said after the game that Fischer never heard the whistle for the offensive foul.

"She was under water," he said.

Del Toro scored on a "submarine" play out of a timeout, emerging from the water to pull Laguna within a goal. But, with the shot clock about to expire, Newport goalie Cleo Harrington (11 saves) stopped a Breakers outside shot with less than 30 seconds to go.

Then controversy again ensued. Laguna pressed to try to get a steal, and Princeton-bound senior Sydney Saxe deflected a pass into the middle of the pool. Laguna freshman Natalie Selin was there, and the Breakers appeared to have one last shot to tie the score.

But Saxe was called for an exclusion on the play, again over heavy protest from Damato and the fans. Newport was able to run the clock out.

"There was a lot of tough calls at the end of the game," Damato said, declining to discuss the officiating further.

UC Santa Barbara-bound Laguna senior Mackenzie Baldridge had four steals and two assists. Del Toro scored three goals, and Saxe added a goal and three steals. Jenna Knott made 10 saves.

Peterson led all Sailors with three steals, and sophomore Rachel Whitelegge added a goal and two steals. Senior co-captain Elissia Schilling provided two assists and two steals for Newport, also drawing two exclusions.

O'Beck, who has come on as an offensive threat for the Sailors in recent weeks, said Schilling also played another important role.

"She's just so reassuring," O'Beck said. "That makes you more confident to shoot, when you know your teammates are behind you. I missed a lot of shots in this game, but she told me to just keep shooting and not let that get me down. That's kind of where the confidence comes from."

Newport Harbor is 0-3 against its semifinal opponent, Santa Barbara, this season. The Sailors also lost to Santa Barbara at least twice last summer in tournaments.

"They play a really hard drop defense and they have a great goalie [senior Maddie Trabucco]," Barnett said. "It's very, very difficult to score on them, because they force you to shoot the ball from the outside."

But nobody said defending the Division 1 title would be easy. Laguna Beach certainly showed that Saturday. The Sailors narrowly avoided losing at the Breakers' pool in the CIF quarterfinals for the second time in three years.

"This is a very difficult pool to play in," Barnett said of the Breakers' pool. "No. 1, it plays shorter than when you have the floating goals, about a yard to a yard and a half shorter. And then, the crowd's right on top of you. It is difficult to play here."

Barnett paused for a second.

"But we will take the win," he added.

Twitter: @mjszabo

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