Girls' Water Polo: Newport Harbor stuns Santa Barbara, sets up Battle of the Bay final

IRVINE — Playing against Santa Barbara and its "drop" defense for the fourth time this year was a daunting task for the Newport Harbor High girls' water polo team.

The first three times didn't go so great. And the senior-laden Dons also beat Newport Harbor in at least three tournaments before the season began.

"We've never [beaten] them," Newport Harbor junior goalie Cleo Harrington said. "Summer, fall, winter."

You can drop those games off of the radar. None of them really matter anymore.

The Sailors saved their best performance for last.

As a result, they are one game away from defending their CIF Southern Section Division 1 title.

No. 4-seeded Newport Harbor blitzed top-seeded Santa Barbara with four first-quarter goals Wednesday night at Woollett Aquatics Center. The Sailors were on their way to an 8-5 upset victory, returning to the Division 1 title match Saturday night at Woollett.

A familiar opponent awaits. It's Back Bay rival Corona del Mar, which upset Foothill, 10-9 in overtime, in another semifinal match Wednesday night. The teams are meeting again with the CIF title on the line.

Coach Bill Barnett said he liked the way his team shut down the counterattack of the Dons (25-5), who had a 19-match winning streak snapped. And Newport Harbor also limited Santa Barbara to a one-for-six performance on the power play.

The Sailors showed they meant business in the opening quarter. First senior Avery Peterson scored on a pass from senior Carolyn Smith. Santa Barbara had a power-play chance, but sophomore Rachel Whitelegge stole a pass.

On the other end, Sailors senior co-captain Carly Christian drew an exclusion. The goal came from center, as the other senior co-captain, Elissia Schilling, redirected a pass from Smith.

Whitelegge scored again from the outside, and suddenly it was a 3-0 edge with 2:49 remaining in the first quarter. Newport Harbor had already matched its goal total from the previous game the teams played, a 5-3 Santa Barbara win in the semifinals of the Irvine Southern California Championships on Feb. 2.

Junior Betsy Hendrix finally got the Dons on the board after scoring bar-down from five meters. But there was Whitelegge again, scoring on an outside lob to bring the Sailors to a 4-1 advantage.

Santa Barbara never got closer than two goals the rest of the game.

"They hit some shots," Santa Barbara Coach Mark Walsh said of the Sailors. "I thought that was the biggest thing. We only gave up three goals last time we played them, in the whole game. [Tonight] they got four in the first quarter, so that was kind of uncharacteristic for us ...we'll give up outside shots all day, just because we have to. We don't have anyone to match up with Elissia. Their girls just hit some really nice shots. If they're going to hit bar-ins from six meters, seven meters out, they're the better team than us."

The last time the Dons got within two goals was with 4:17 left in the game, when junior Jessica Gaffney connected from the outside at the shot-clock buzzer to narrow the Sailors' lead to 7-5. But there was Newport junior Christina O'Beck on the other end, answering with an outside shot to push the lead back to three.

"We knew that they drop," Harrington said. "In previous games, that gave them easy one-on-nobodies and two-on-ones going the other way. Coach B was just really focusing on watching their drop and rotating the defense earlier."

Christian, Whitelegge and O'Beck all scored twice for the Sailors. Schilling and Peterson each had one goal and two steals. Peterson also had a steal at mid-tank in the third quarter, swimming down and earning a five-meter penalty shot that Christian put away.

Hendrix scored twice to lead Santa Barbara. Senior goalie Maddie Trabucco made just five saves, as the Sailors' shots usually found their mark.

Newport Harbor has been considered the underdog at times over the past two years. The Sailors have always seemed to embrace that role.

But, most importantly, they have put themselves in position to win another CIF title.

"I love it," said Harrington, who made 13 saves Wednesday. "I'm so excited. That Foothill and CdM game was nuts. I'm really looking forward to Saturday, but we have a lot of work to do in practice before then."

Twitter: @mjszabo

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World