Pipkin rocks for Newport Harbor

Newport Beach isn't exactly Graceland, but leave it to Newport Harbor High junior Kate Pipkin to find special meaning in each location.

She can tell you how special it is to play for one of the top high school water polo programs in the country, but Pipkin would almost rather wax poetic on Elvis Presley.

Pipkin said that she has a passion for music, which seems like an understatement when she almost casually adds that she can play six instruments. There's the bass, the ukulele, the mandolin, the drums and the piano. Make sure you don't forget about her favorite, the electric guitar.

"I like a lot of the old rockabilly, the Elvis kind of music," Pipkin said. "You can play, then you can go straight into a solo. You can mix it up. I like that whole era of music, the birth of rock-and-roll."

The birth of Pipkin as a water polo player happened at the end of sixth grade. Her father Matt, who played the sport at Palos Verdes High, was trying to get Kate's younger brother Collin into water polo. Kate decided she would also try the sport herself.

It almost didn't last too long. Pipkin almost never made it to the Sailors' pool. She said she nearly went to Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana. But in the end, she enrolled at Newport Harbor as a freshman and ended up on the Sailors frosh/soph team, where she played goalie.

"I can't read music, and I'm not formally trained in anything but guitar," she explained. "It just didn't add up, I guess, but I would definitely love to be in a band, to be famous and whatever."

She will play in front of big crowds this year, but with a Mikasa water polo ball instead of a guitar. That's something that the Sailors (3-0), who play at Corona del Mar on Friday at 5 p.m. in the Battle of the Bay game, can appreciate. Pipkin, in her first year as a starter, has seemed to come into her own in the pool.

She scored the winning goal in transition with 27 seconds left on Dec. 13 as Newport Harbor upset Foothill, 8-7, on the road. In terms of rankings it wasn't much of an upset, as the Knights came into the match ranked No. 2 in CIF Southern Section Division 1 and the Sailors No. 3. But there has been a sense this year that top-ranked Laguna Beach and Foothill were the teams to beat in CIF.

Now it's Newport Harbor that switched spots with Foothill and is ranked No. 2. Pipkin was big in the fourth-quarter rally, and she finished the game with two goals. She has seven goals on the season, tied with lefty Ellie Reid for second on the team behind senior Christina O'Beck with 10.

Yes, the Sailors are young. They start four juniors, a list that includes Pipkin, Reid, Chanel Schilling and Rachel Whitelegge. Yet they already have shown great promise and shown that they're never a team that should be underestimated, especially not as long as Bill Barnett is their coach.

"I kind of like it, because it leaves a little bit of surprise," Pipkin said. "When you don't think we're going to come back, we come back. In the Foothill game we just played, we were down and we scored five goals in the fourth quarter, after having kind of a rough three quarters. I feel like we're a team that finishes out strong."

That's certainly been true the last two seasons. This is a team that opened the season ranked no higher than No. 4 in Division 1 each of the last two years, yet made the final each time, winning the championship in 2012.

Pipkin watched that 2012 title game, an 8-7 comeback victory over CdM, from the stands at Irvine's Woollett Aquatics Center. She calls it her favorite athletic moment so far. She is the rare kid who would say that her favorite athletic moment was one she had no part in directly.

"It lit a fire, just as something for all of us to look forward to," Pipkin said. "We want to be like that our senior year, or junior year ... I didn't know how big of a deal that was until I got to my sophomore year.

"Now there's a level you need to get to. Now there's a requirement you need to meet. It's just something to kind of push you harder."

Last year, Pipkin was a member of the CIF finalist team, though she didn't get into games during CIF. At the start of the season, she was on the much-heralded Newport junior varsity team along with Reid, Schilling and junior goalie Carlee Kapana. The JV team turned heads, winning the Costa Mesa varsity tournament for the second straight year and finishing ninth at the varsity Holiday Cup.

But Pipkin was a midseason varsity call-up. She got her first varsity action in a nonleague game at Laguna Beach, also scoring her first varsity goal.

"She's really a good athlete," Barnett said. "Maybe she wouldn't see a lot of varsity time, but being exposed to the varsity would help her this year. She has a tremendous amount of talent."

Barnett also praised Pipkin's work ethic. She routinely stays after practice to work on her shooting.

It seems to just be part of her thoughtful nature. This makes her a good person to follow on Twitter (@kate_pipkin), where she has well more than 3,000 tweets. On campus, she's on the Student-Athlete Leadership Council at Newport Harbor.

Collin ended up focusing on basketball, where he is the only freshman on the Sailors' varsity squad this year. But now it's Kate's time to shine in the pool.

Playing water polo isn't like playing guitar, because you need a team and can't do it by yourself. But Pipkin's shot at the end of the Foothill game was certainly the equivalent of a rocking solo at the end of a fun jam session.

"Hey, I'll take it," Pipkin said. "I wouldn't want anything different. I think we're all just in it together. As much as we say we're tired or we wish we could go home, I think we all love it, and that's why we stuck around."

Pipkin almost didn't. She said there was a point during her freshman year when she didn't know if she would keep going. She wasn't having a lot of fun playing in goal, and even in the field she wasn't one of the top players.

"I thought I was going to bench all through high school," she said. "I guess I didn't have any hope in myself. I was thinking about just doing two years, getting my P.E. credit and then just going on my way. But I'm glad I stuck with it, because I feel like the journey with this team has been so worth it.

"I think you've kind of got to keep in mind the highs when you're going through a low. It's not the full potential of who you are, or what your work has done for you."

It's been an up-and-down journey, but Pipkin is still here and thriving for the Sailors.

Sounds like the beginnings of a good song.

Kate Pipkin

Born: Sept. 9, 1996

Hometown: Costa Mesa

Height: 5-foot-7

Sport: Water Polo

Year: Junior

Coach: Bill Barnett

Favorite food: Avocado cream cheese bagels

Favorite movie: "School of Rock"

Favorite athletic moment: Watching Newport Harbor girls' water polo win the 2012 CIF Southern Section Division 1 title.

Week in review: Pipkin had two goals, including the game-winner with 27 seconds left, as Newport Harbor came back to upset Foothill, 8-7, in a nonleague game Dec. 13.

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