Boys' Water Polo: Bay belongs to Sailors again

Luca Cupido is something of a rock star at Newport Harbor High this fall, from the water polo fans who enjoy his electrifying game to the, ahem, high school girls who enjoy his 6-foot-4 frame in a Speedo.

The loudest cheers during introductions at Saturday night's Battle of the Bay game were for Cupido, the transfer from Italy. An 8-year-old kid on the sidelines, Finn LeSieur, danced around with an Italian flag draped around him. Someone else carried a sign professing love for Cupido.

Cupido did not disappoint in his first — and last — Battle of the Bay. Yet, in front of a huge standing-room only crowd, the Sailors proved that they have much more in their arsenal than just the flashy Italian.

Newport junior Clay Davison matched Cupido with three goals as the Sailors hung on to top rival Corona del Mar, 10-8, recording their third straight Battle of the Bay victory.

Senior Mitchell Mendoza and junior center Chad Sheldon also scored twice for the Sailors (12-3), who never trailed.

"In the last game against Mater Dei [a 16-10 loss in the South Coast Tournament final], I felt like we were missing a few passes that were just natural in the water," Newport Harbor Coach Robert Lynn said. "Even though we were trying to play the ball to Luca, there's a natural play. You've got to play the natural flow of the game. No matter who it is, you have to get the ball to the right place, and we were forcing the ball to Luca too much. Tonight, we said everyone plays and we're all responsible. Don't be wild with your attacking ... I think we played a little more composed on the attack. The guys are getting more experienced all the time, getting more composure and more control."

Lynn walked over to the Newport Harbor team room after the game laughing and soaking wet. He said a group of 14-and-under girls threw him into the pool.

In his third year, Lynn has never lost the scheduled regular-season Battle of the Bay match. His team, ranked No. 3 in CIF Southern Section Division 1, seized control in the first half Saturday night, similar to when the teams met in the South Coast Tournament semifinals on Sept. 28. Newport Harbor won that contest, 10-6.

After Cupido struck first from four meters on Saturday night, CdM (5-5) evened the score late in the first quarter on a penalty shot by senior Jay Neiger. Newport Harbor sophomore Ben Morrison was issued a game misconduct on the play.

But, from there, the Sailors would score four unanswered goals. First it was the lefty Mendoza from five meters on the power play, giving the Sailors a 2-1 lead after the first quarter. Then Mendoza found Davison with 3:55 left in the half. After a steal by Cupido, he fed senior KJ Kelley on the counterattack, and Kelley earned a penalty shot. Cupido converted it, bringing the advantage to 4-1.

Then Davison scored again from the point, and CdM Coach Barry O'Dea called timeout with 1:36 left in the half to talk it over.

O'Dea, whose team converted just one for 11 on extra in the rivals' South Coast Tournament meeting, saw that number improve to three for 10 on Saturday. But the Sea Kings converted just one of five in the first half, which ended with CdM down, 6-3.

Senior Matt Sherburne, who led everybody with five goals, drew at least seven exclusions for CdM, as well as two penalty shots. But more often than not, CdM, ranked No. 5 in Division 1, failed to capitalize.

"I think our six-on-five in the first half was horrendous," O'Dea said. "That's the difference right there. Maybe if we score two more of those, we're in a tie game at half, [but] we were battling the whole time. The guys didn't give up. Losing [Jack] Trush in the third quarter hurt a little bit, but I thought our guys responded really well. I thought the guys we came in with off the bench did a good job."

Mendoza, who said he has never seen that many people on the Newport Harbor pool deck, said containing Sherburne on CdM's six-on-five was key. Sherburne did score twice on six-on-fives in the fourth quarter.

"Sherburne is their best player, and he plays post," Mendoza said. "It's possible to contain post better than an outside guy. When we're heavy on the post, it's hard for them to get the ball to Sherburne. That usually works out well for us."

Trush, a primary defender on Cupido, indeed fouled out early in the third quarter. But Cupido, who had a game-high five steals and drew two exclusions, did not score in the second half. He didn't have to, as others stepped up on offense every time CdM threatened.

The Sea Kings brought the game within two goals four different times in the second half, but couldn't get closer. The last time, it was Sherburne earning a penalty shot, which he made with 2:18 left in the game.

CdM had one more shot to bring it within a goal, but a skip shot was well high with 1:30 to go. On the other end, Davison iced the game, scoring from six meters on a shot that trickled just under the arm of CdM goalie Ryan Hamm (eight saves and an assist).

Sherburne added another six-on-five goal on Ashton Jajonie's pass, again cutting the lead to two with less than a minute to go. But CdM ran out of time.

"Sherburne played really well tonight," O'Dea said. "We talked a lot with him this week about how he needs to start finishing, and boy did he tonight ... It was a good game. We played well. It's a Battle of the Bay game, you know. I think they beat us in this game last year, and we know how it turned out at the end of the year [with CdM beating Newport Harbor in the CIF Southern Section Division 1 quarterfinals]. There's another 20-some odd games left in the season. At the end of the day, there is a tomorrow."

Newport Harbor senior Massimo Navarretta made five saves for the Sailors, who went two for five on the man-advantage. Navarretta made a big play at the end of the third quarter, after a shot from CdM went bar down. There was a scrum in front of the Sailors' goal, but the referee ruled that Navarretta held possession long enough for Lynn to call timeout. It helped preserve what was a 7-5 Newport Harbor lead at the time.

The Sailors' other high-profile transfer, Cupido, was able to breathe a sigh of relief after the contest.

"It doesn't count a lot, the technique, in a rivalry game," Cupido said. "It's more charisma and more heart in the game; who wants to win more? In this game, with this crowd, you play on the emotions. We played good defense and we always controlled the game pretty good.

"I didn't think it was going to be so [many] people [here]. It was crazy. I've played in many important games, but I was a bit nervous for this one. We had all the pressure, because we're playing in our pool. We couldn't lose. It was our pool, our game. I thought it was impossible for them to win tonight. We were so fired up."

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