Boys' Water Polo: Sailors close strong

Newport Harbor High senior Mitchell Mendoza is usually pretty reserved, but not on Saturday.

After walking the ball in from the right side, he scored cross-cage. He then violently splashed the water, in the direction of some of his friends on the east side of the Sailors' pool deck.

Mendoza's goal early in the third quarter of the CIF Southern Section Division 1 quarterfinal game gave the Sailors a one-goal lead on Dana Hills. He celebrated again after scoring on a counterattack on Chad Sheldon's pass, then again after scoring near-side on a six-on-five chance later in the quarter.

"All of my friends that never come to my games were there this time," Mendoza said after the game. "I just saw them, and it got me fired up. And it's CIF. It's do-or-die; you've got to go out with a bang. It could have been my last game."

Each of these three goals gave the Sailors the lead. They extended it in the fourth quarter by shutting out the Dolphins, pulling away for a 14-9 victory in front of an overflow crowd.

Mendoza ended up with a game-high five goals for No. 3-seeded Newport Harbor (23-4). The Sailors will play No. 2-seeded Harvard-Westlake in the semifinals at 5 p.m. Wednesday at Irvine's Woollett Aquatics Center.

Harvard-Westlake blasted Northwood, 18-4, in another quarterfinal game Saturday.

The Sunset League champion Sailors certainly got a game from South Coast League champion Dana Hills (20-9). Neither team led by more than a goal until the end of the third quarter, when the Sailors created some breathing room.

Sophomore Ben Morrison scored from center on a pass from junior Jack Mooers, giving the Sailors a 10-9 edge. Then senior Luca Cupido scored in transition from about nine meters with two seconds left in the quarter, providing Newport Harbor its first two-goal lead. Nobody on Dana Hills came out to defend Cupido, and he made the Dolphins pay.

The Sailors pulled away after that. Sheldon skipped in a goal with 4:16 left in the game, giving Newport Harbor a 12-9 advantage. Then, after a Dana Hills power-play chance went off the left bar, Cupido scored on a sweep shot off Mendoza's pass for the Sailors' 13th goal.

The fifth unanswered goal, closing out the game, came from Morrison with 1:35 left.

"Eventually, we thought our conditioning would break them a little bit," Newport Harbor Coach Robert Lynn said. "If we survived the first couple of quarters, three quarters, then I thought eventually we'd slip away from them, which happened."

"We wanted Luca to cover [Dana Hills junior Marko] Asic, and that put him on the other [right] side of the pool. That kind of threw our offense a little off ... but we wanted to make sure we held the defense down and not worry about the offense so much. They came together really strong on the defensive end in the second half, and that's why I was proud of them."

Cupido had three goals and four steals for the Sailors, while Morrison also had a hat trick. Junior Clay Davison had two goals, an assist and also drew two exclusions for Newport Harbor, which received 10 saves from senior goalkeeper Massimo Navarretta.

Navarretta also anchored a defense that held Dana Hills to two-for-10 on the power play. Newport Harbor converted two of five chances.

"The good thing about stopping a six-on-five, it's like stopping something you really shouldn't," Navarretta said. "It kills their momentum, and kind of fires everyone up."

Senior Spencer Likins led the Dolphins with three goals, while Bailey Harris and Asic each scored twice. Likins was thought by the referee to have fouled out of the game late in the third quarter after picking up his third exclusion. But the Sailors scorebook had him with just two exclusions, so he stayed in the game.

Either way, the Sailors' defense clamped down. Newport Harbor definitely was fired up after the game. The song "We are the Champions" came on just after the final whistle.

To play for the title, the Sailors still need one more win, and it will have to come against the program Lynn coached before accepting the Newport Harbor position in 2011.

Harvard-Westlake beat Newport Harbor, 20-11, in a game at the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions on Sept. 20. However, as Lynn noted, the Sailors were coming off an emotional 8-7 win over Sacred Heart Prep just a couple of hours earlier.

The game against the Wolverines was close for a half.

"I think we just kind of mentally fell apart," Navarretta said. "A couple of one-on-nobodies, and no one was helping back. Their counterattack killed us. We played them early in our season, and I think we've grown a lot. we're really playing as a team now."

Wednesday's semifinal will take place two months to the day after the teams' first meeting. The Sailors, who have won eight straight games, will have a chance to show how much they've improved.

"We're going to have to slow their pace down," Lynn said. "We're going to be hungry. We're going to see which team wants it more. If we can play good defense, we'll be fine."

Top-seeded Mater Dei will meet Loyola in the second Division 1 semifinal at Woollett, on Wednesday at 7 p.m.

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