IRVINE — The last instructions Newport Harbor High boys’ water polo coach Robert Lynn gave to his team coming out of halftime were crystal clear.
“Keep it under control, guys,” Lynn told his players as they waited along the lane line. “Keep covering back. Take their counter away.”
For the better part of three quarters, the Sailors indeed were able to take away Studio City Harvard-Westlake’s counterattack in Wednesday night’s CIF Southern Section Division 1 semifinal match.
But then Harvard-Westlake junior Johnny Hooper got free for a goal with two seconds left in the third quarter.
Then Hooper scored again at the left post in the fourth, on a lob. Then he scored yet again from the same spot, again on the counterattack and again on a lob.
Three counterattack strikes, and the Sailors are out.
Hooper finished with a game-high four goals as the No. 2-seeded Wolverines rallied for a 9-6 victory at Woollett Aquatics Center, ending No. 3-seeded Newport Harbor’s season.
Harvard-Westlake moves on to play top-seeded Mater Dei in Saturday’s final at 1 p.m. The Monarchs, who feature eight Newport Beach residents, are going for their fourth straight Division 1 title. They beat Loyola, 7-3, in the second semifinal Wednesday night.
Mater Dei is 3-0 against Harvard-Westlake this season.
Lynn’s Sailors (23-5) improved over their showing in the first meeting with his former team, a 20-11 loss at the Santa Barbara tournament in September. Harvard-Westlake Coach Brian Flacks, who was hired at the school after Lynn left for Newport Harbor in 2011, was very complimentary of the Sailors after Wednesday night’s contest. Flacks said that it was only the fifth time this year the high-powered Harvard-Westlake attack was held under 10 goals; Mater Dei did it three of the times and Division 2 finalist Agoura did it once.
“All the credit to Newport Harbor, and Robert and [assistant coach] Pavle [Filipovic],” Flacks said. “They did a fantastic job. They did a great job really slowing us down and making us play in the half court, and it was tough for us. We couldn’t get out in transition ... they did a great job defensively and Massimo [Navarretta] came up with huge saves. They did a great job in helping on defense and forcing turnovers.”
Still, it wasn’t enough to extend the Sailors’ season.
“We made a lot of progress,” Lynn said. “To control them 3-2 [in the first half], it shows that we came out serious. We had a lot of opportunities in the first half to make it a bigger spread than that, but those guys held together and had a little bit more experience. They started getting their shooters hot outside.”
Harvard-Westlake (24-3) did indeed trail at halftime, 3-2. The Sailors got a second-quarter skip shot goal from junior Clay Davison from about nine meters, then a power-play dish from Jack Mooers to Chad Sheldon, to earn the advantage.
But the Wolverines made their move in the third quarter, scoring five goals. They took the lead back as their lone senior starter, Warren Snyder, scored from about seven meters. Newport senior Luca Cupido answered on the Sailors’ next possession, but then Harvard got a six-on-five strike from Hooper to grab a 5-4 advantage.
Newport tied it on the power play, when Stanford-bound senior Mitchell Mendoza fired a goal into the near corner from the right side. But then Harvard sophomore center Ben Hallock somehow beat a triple-team to score from two meters with 1:14 left in the quarter. And Hooper’s second goal, with two seconds left in the quarter, gave the Wolverines a 7-5 lead headed into the final quarter.
Two more counterattack goals later, the Sailors were in a serious hole.
“When they thought it was safe, they didn’t hustle,” Lynn said. “That’s [lack of] experience. For me, if I know it’s a fast player, I’m sprinting five strokes in front of him and I’m staying in front of him. I’m not going easy because he’s going easy, or medium because he’s going medium ... We were allowing him to get inside, instead of taking the inside position. It just led to easy goals. Three counterattack goals and one goal out of center, that was their game.
“When people get tired, bad habits come out. I saw a lot of improvement, [but] they just beat us on experience.”
Both teams finished three for six in power-play situations. Cupido and Davison each scored twice for the Sailors, and Sheldon had a nice game with the goal and a pair of field blocks. Sophomore Ben Morrison made two steals and was highlighted by Lynn for his defensive efforts, while Navarretta made nine saves.
Snyder scored three goals for Harvard-Westlake, and Anthony Ridgley made eight saves. One of them was a big one early in the fourth quarter, when he ranged right to stuff a Cupido shot from about six meters.
Hooper, on the other end, finished off the goal.
“He’s so dynamic, and he scores so quickly,” Flacks said of his star junior. “He did a great job in the second half really pushing the break. He’s so quick over his hips, and tough to catch.”
Cupido, the Sailors’ top player who transferred from Italy over the summer, now will head to Cal. But he said he really enjoyed playing with his teammates this fall. The Sailors won their fifth straight Sunset League title this season.
“In these three months, we learned to play as a team,” Cupido said. “This is more than a team, this is a group of friends. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get to the final, but we lost by [nine] when we played against Harvard-Westlake last time. We made a lot of improvements ... maybe we had a lack of experience, but these guys next year can do very good.”