Girls' Water Polo: Crown the Queens

IRVINE — They were given pink crowns as they entered Woollett Aquatics Center on Saturday night.

They waved white and purple and pink pompoms, the team colors of the Corona del Mar High girls' water polo team.

For the Sea Kings and their fans, this was a victory that was seven years in the making.

That crown? It finally fits just right.

Senior Ally McCormick scored four goals and CdM held on to defeat rival Newport Harbor, 6-5, to capture its first CIF Southern Section Division 1 title.

This one was for the 2008 team, which lost a three-goal lead and fell to the Sailors in the final. This one was for the 2009 team, which was edged by Dos Pueblos. It was even for last year's team, which again lost a three-goal lead to Newport Harbor in the championship match.

All three of those heartbreaking losses were by one goal. But now the proud Corona del Mar program is the one on top.

"You look at Ted Bandaruk, who was a lot of these kids' first water polo coach," CdM Coach Sam Bailey said. "You look at John Vargas, who really did everything to put CdM on the map. Mike Starkweather from the swim side. Obviously, Aaron Chaney, I look at him as being a John Wooden-esque type of coach. And you also have to pay serious tribute to all the parents and athletes who came before any of these girls. The culture that CdM has is, in my opinion, very unique and very special. I think that anybody who's become really close to the program would agree.

"What an amazing atmosphere that the program's put together here."

The No. 3-seeded Sea Kings (27-4) did it with defense. They held No. 4-seeded Newport Harbor (24-7) to two for seven on its power play. The Sailors had three possessions in the final two minutes, and all they could manage was three shots from outside five meters. Two went wide left. The last one, off a timeout with two seconds left, went over the cage at the buzzer from about six meters.

"Our goal was to play through the entire clock, because a lot of times we start to get lazy in the last 10 seconds and that's where they get off their goals," McCormick said. "We made that adjustment. [Assistant coach Brian] Mericle was the one who really brought that up. He was like, 'You guys need to play through the entire clock,' and obviously it worked. It was kind of a game-changer."

Corona del Mar also did it with a spectacular performance by McCormick, who matched a season-high for goals in her final competitive water polo game. The four-year varsity player is headed to BYU for swimming.

Did she ever show Newport Harbor she could swim on Saturday night.

It was her six-on-five strike with seven seconds left in the first quarter, on an exclusion that she drew, that put CdM on the board. The goal was key, after seniors Carolyn Smith and co-captain Elissia Schilling gave the Sailors a 2-0 lead early.

"It's funny, we were talking [Friday] night at practice, that this is all the seniors' last high school water polo practice," senior co-captain Cassidy Papa said. "Then, for Ally and Caitlin [Brandenberger], it was basically their last water polo practice. We wanted to come out and end on a good note, and I think Ally really took that to heart. She played awesome and she really led the team. I've played with her since I was 8, so honestly, there was no one else that I'd rather share this moment with than Ally."

CdM, which had battled back from a two-goal deficit in the quarterfinals against Los Alamitos and a three-goal deficit in the semifinals against Foothill, showed that it could do it again. McCormick's first goal started an avalanche, four straight goals for the Sea Kings. McCormick scored again on the power play, then the Sea Kings got a counterattack goal from Papa on Stephania Haralabidis' assist. And then there was McCormick again, giving CdM a 4-2 advantage on a lob goal off a counterattack.

Schilling scored on a backhand shot with 46 seconds left in the half, but CdM still had a 4-3 halftime lead.

"This was it," McCormick said. "I think that knowing that it was my last one, the last game I was ever going to play, it was almost motivation to make it my best game. I really didn't want to go out regretting it or not playing as hard as I should have. Obviously, we all came together, so it was so awesome to just play as a team. It's the best feeling in the world, to go out on a win."

Newport senior Avery Peterson scored a rebound goal to again tie the score in the third quarter. But McCormick struck again, scoring on the counter to give CdM a 5-4 lead midway through the quarter.

Newport Harbor Coach Bill Barnett saw, in that play, one of the key reasons why his team failed to win back-to-back Division 1 titles.

"They've got more speed than we do," Barnett said. "And we didn't shoot the ball worth a damn."

The Sailors fell behind by two goals in the fourth, after twice failing to convert on six-on-five chances to tie. On the second chance, CdM got a big save from senior co-captain Erica Weed, one of her six on the night, to get out of trouble.

CdM junior center Marina Coskinas scored on a lob from two meters for the 6-4 edge. But at the other end, Schilling tried to rally the Sailors.

She drew a penalty shot with the shot clock running down. Senior co-captain Carly Christian put it away, cutting the lead in half with 2:05 left. But CdM would hold on.

"We did what we wanted to do," Schilling said. "We shut down their six-on-five pretty well, and it was a low-scoring game. I just don't think we capitalized on our six-on-five. We had the opportunities to put the ball in the cage. Myself, I know I had two or three shots that hit the bar, and those are the shots that need to go in the goal to win these types of games. But you have to give all the credit to CdM and their coaching staff over there. They did a great job, and they deserve it. I'm excited for them, that they get to feel what this feels like.

"It definitely sucks to be on the other side, but we just try to keep telling ourselves, 'It's just another game.' Life's a huge game, and you can't always win. We lost tonight, but I don't think anyone on our team is a loser. We played our hardest, and they played better than us tonight."

Junior goalie Cleo Harrington made nine saves for the Sailors.

CdM, again playing without freshman standout Maddie Musselman (broken wrist), got contributions from a multitude of places. After senior defender Genevieve Weed got in foul trouble, senior Morgan Stewart again stepped up on both ends for the second straight game. And sophomore Eliza Britt got a key field block to thwart a Newport Harbor six-on-five.

It was nothing new for the Sea Kings, who started the year playing nonleague games in Santa Barbara without Papa and Coskinas, as well as waiting for the Haralabidis twins to become eligible.

"These girls have really had to juggle different teammates in and out of the lineup," Bailey said. "I think ultimately it was very helpful ... A week ago, I don't think [Britt] was expecting to touch the water."

Everyone on the team touched the water at the end, as the Sea Kings leaped into the pool. The fact that it was their first CIF title since winning in Division 2 in 2006 made it that much sweeter.

"This is huge," McCormick said. "To know that we are the group that could accomplish this, it feels incredible. Winning CIF is awesome, and then making it Division 1 and beating your Back Bay rivals? It can't get any better than that."

Twitter: @mjszabo

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