Boys' Water Polo: 5 in a row for Tars

Newport Harbor High senior Luca Cupido is the water polo equivalent of Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry.

Fans watch Cupido, the exuberant transfer from Italy, closely every time he gets the ball. Don't take your eyes off him, or you might miss what he will do next.

What he did at the end of Wednesday night's game was score on a crazy backhand skip shot goal from mid-tank at the buzzer.

"That was ridiculous," sophomore teammate Ben Morrison said. "That was insane. That's Luca's game right there, just crazy shots coming out of nowhere."

It perhaps put a proper cap on the huge game for the Sunset League title. The Sailors claim it after beating second-place Huntington Beach, 13-7.

It's Newport Harbor's fifth straight league title, and it's now more than likely that the Sailors (21-4, 5-0 in league) will receive the No. 3 seed for the CIF Southern Section Division 1 playoffs that begin next week.

The Cal-bound Cupido led everyone with five goals, including the last three of the game for Newport Harbor. But don't think for a second that the Sailors are a one-man team.

"One-man teams don't finish third position [in CIF]," Coach Robert Lynn said. "We have a whole team that got us to where we are now, and it's going to take all of us to beat the No. 2 team [Harvard-Westlake]."

Everyone seemed to come together Wednesday night. Senior goalkeeper Massimo Navarretta, who has been battling a groin injury, made 13 saves, including a big one on a one-on-nobody in the final two minutes.

Stanford-bound senior lefty Mitchell Mendoza had three goals and a couple of nice assists. Morrison scored twice, and played stellar set defense with freshman Ryan Hurst.

Senior center K.J. Kelley and juniors Clay Davison and Jack Mooers added goals for Newport Harbor, while junior center Chad Sheldon drew an exclusion and made a field block. The Sailors took a 3-1 lead after a quarter and never looked back, giving the Oilers (20-9, 4-1) their only league loss.

"We played really good defense," Mendoza said. "A lot of times, they post up, and we just played good post up [defense]. Even when we got ejections, I still feel like we played good five-man defense, which was important. If you don't do that, you're probably going to lose the game."

Lynn said having Morrison and Hurst as set guards was big. The Oilers, who were led by Ethan Wojciechowski with three goals and Skyler Munatones and James Vlachonassios with two each, scored nearly all of their goals from the outside.

"They were doing well," Lynn said. "Plus, if you have Luca on the outside, you've got to worry about the counter."

Huntington Beach cut the lead to two, at 8-6, as Vlachonassios scored from the outside with 4:32 left in the third quarter. But on the Sailors' next possession, Mooers made a nice pass to Morrison for a goal.

And, after Newport Harbor killed off an Oilers power play, Kelley scored from set to give Newport Harbor a 10-6 lead that it took into the fourth quarter.

"We have a lot of talent on our team, obviously, and we've been working on getting together and getting our chemistry right," Morrison said. "It's a great thing that it's happening now, going into CIF. [We've been making] smart passes, and running the plays that Robert's been telling us to run. Tonight, we were just looking a lot more aware and [making] heads-up plays.

"Robert's been working with all of us throughout the season, and Luca's been a big help, kind of like a third coach on our team. It's really improving us as a unit ... Luca's putting his heart out every night. He told us this, he's giving 100% every night to work for us. We're just giving it back to him. We're going 110% for him, and we're ready to play as a team and ready for CIF."

The Sailors, who have won six straight games, appear ready for CIF. The brackets will be released Sunday morning.

A possible semifinal matchup with Harvard-Westlake looms. The Wolverines beat the Sailors, 20-11, at the Santa Barbara tournament on Sept. 20. However, Morrison said Newport Harbor actually led that game, 5-4, at halftime.

"We just fell apart," Morrison said. "It was the same thing in the Mater Dei game [a 16-10 loss in the South Coast tournament final Sept. 28], allowing so many counterattack goals. You know, we've been working on that. We've been swimming a hell of a lot more, getting in really good shape, and I think we're going to be ready for those teams. We're ready to compete."

Cupido has consistently stepped up in the big games for the Sailors. Now on the biggest high school stage, CIF, who knows what he will have for an encore?

"We're as ready as we can be," Lynn said. "This game was very important, to win league, and [a loss] would have knocked us off our position. The guys knew it, and trained all week for it and prepared well. The guys executed, so that was what we were happy about."

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