Girls' Water Polo: Breakers capture CIF championship

IRVINE — The Newport Harbor High girls' water polo team played Laguna Beach four times this season, saving the best for last.

The Sailors did not roll over in Saturday afternoon's CIF Southern Section Division 1 title match. They came out aggressive and pushed the Breakers like few teams have this season.

Newport Harbor badly wanted its sixth Division 1 title.

But Makenzie Fischer helped deliver Laguna Beach its first.

The junior had five goals and five steals as the top-seeded Breakers won, 10-7, at Woollett Aquatics Center.

Laguna Beach (30-1), which ends its season on a program-record 21-match winning streak, could not be stopped. Fischer, a U.S. senior national team player whose team had been knocked out of the playoffs by Newport Harbor the last two years, did not let it happen again.

"She was amazing," Laguna Beach Coach Ethan Damato said. "I really thought that she willed us to victory today, especially offensively. She's a special player, you know? She's going to make big plays."

At the start of the game, it was the seventh-seeded Sailors (23-8) who were making plays. Juniors Ellie Reid and Chanel Schilling each drew exclusions on Newport Harbor's first two possessions. Senior Heidi Fults scored on the second power play, assisted by Kate Pipkin, to give the Sailors the early advantage.

Newport Harbor added another six-on-five strike, this time by Reid, to tie the score at 2-2 after a quarter. And the Sailors were down just 5-3 at halftime. Schilling, a center who drew three exclusions and continued her strong postseason play, beat a double-team to score with 54 seconds left in the second quarter.

"I'm happy we took the fight to them," Sailors Coach Bill Barnett said. "It wasn't a pushover. The game plan was to come out and attack, attack, attack … I didn't think our ball handling was as good as it could have been at times. We threw the ball away a lot in key situations."

The Breakers scored four of the first five goals of the second half, taking a 9-4 advantage when freshman Bella Baldridge scored a counterattack goal. Makenzie Fischer scored twice in the run, including on a five-meter penalty shot that she drew.

"I thought I played pretty well," said Fischer, who finished the season with 130 goals scored and set a program single-season record with 75 steals. "But there's always things you can improve on. It wasn't perfect. I field blocked two shots into the cage."

Fischer did not have to be so hard on herself. Giving the Breakers a five-goal cushion proved more than enough. Reid scored, and the Sailors added a rare six-on-four goal from Pipkin. That was one of the goals that went off Fischer and in, but the Sailors still trailed by three goals entering the fourth quarter.

They couldn't get closer, despite fouling out Laguna's second-leading scorer, Makenzie's freshman sister Aria, with 5:01 left in the fourth quarter. Heidi Fults' power-play chance glanced off the top of the bar and went over.

Newport Harbor finished three for seven with the extra player. Laguna Beach converted all three of its power-play chances, as well as two penalty shots.

Reid and Pipkin led the Sailors with two goals each, and senior Christina O'Beck scored a backhand goal from set. Senior captain Cleo Harrington made six saves in the first half, and Carlee Kapana made four in the second half.

The Breakers' lone senior starter, Cara Borkovec, scored three goals for the champions, and Baldridge had two. Sophomore Haley Evans contributed three steals and sophomore goalie Holly Parker made four saves.

Newport Harbor's girls did not appear to take the loss too hard. They knew that they pushed the Breakers, said Harrington, who was making her third straight Division 1 final appearance after helping the Sailors win the 2012 Division 1 title as a sophomore.

"I'll definitely remember being able to make it to the final game three times in a row," Harrington said. "Each of the teams had such a different dynamic, and this team has grown really, really close throughout the season. I've enjoyed all of the time we spent together. We made it as far as you can go. Coming into this ranked seventh and coming out No. 2 isn't too bad."

The pressure was on the Breakers, who were ranked No. 1 in the division nearly all season and captured all three regular-season tournaments. But Damato said he didn't see that as a bad thing. It helped motivate Laguna, which captured its third CIF title, the first since winning in Division 2 in 2009.

"Pressure is part of being a great athlete and being a great team," Damato said. "Instead of pressure being a bad thing, we kind of tried to enjoy the pressure, and enjoy rising up to that level. We talked about that at the beginning of the playoffs, and I think that was a great mind set going in.

"It's hard to put it into words [what winning the title means]. I think today's just about this group of girls and their accomplishments. It's been an amazing ride, an amazing season. I'm just really proud of the group of girls I have this year."

The Sailors also were proud. They used their No. 7 seed as motivation in a CIF playoff run that included upset victories over No. 2 Foothill and No. 6 Santa Barbara.

They should be strong next year as well, in what Barnett has said will be his last as a coach. Kapana, Reid, Pipkin, Schilling and defender Rachel Whitelegge all should be back for their senior year.

"Right now I am so happy with how we did," said Reid, who celebrated her 17th birthday Saturday. "We came into this [seeded] seventh, and we finished second. I think we showed a lot of people that we're a much better team than that, so I'm happy with how we ended it."

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