Newport Harbor boys' lacrosse: Sailors turn season around

Early in the season, adversity struck the Newport Harbor High boys' lacrosse team. During the first five games, the Sailors lost a starter to injury each contest, Coach Mark Todd said.

There were some broken collarbones to some players, Todd said, as well as a broken hand to talented freshman midfielder Chandler Pierce, who was lost for the season.

It all became challenging for the Sailors, who stumbled early in the Sunset League season as well, as some players recovered from injury and others left for spring-break trips.

But that is all in the past, and the story is now entirely different for Newport Harbor, which is on a four-game winning streak and has the momentum and confidence that it will end the regular season with six straight wins.

"The kids are really believing in each other," said Todd, whose team is 6-8, 4-2 in league as it enters its game against Marina Wednesday night at 7 at Davidson Field. "They didn't necessarily have that but now they know each of their capabilities. They have progressed physically and mentally."

Don't let the Sailors' record fool you. They lost to Trabuco Hills in the final second, and suffered overtime losses to St. John's of Houston and Mater Dei.

The Sailors believed they showed they can reach the potential with victories over Huntington Beach, 7-5, and league-leader Los Alamitos, 11-8, last week. Those were teams that beat Newport Harbor during the first round of league play. The Griffins smoked the Sailors by a 10-goal margin back then, when Newport Harbor was not at full strength.

But the Sailors exacted revenge Friday and dealt Los Al its first Sunset League loss in front of an electric crowd at Davidson.

"It was definitely fandemonium," Todd said. "Our crowd has grown, despite our record."

The Griffins didn't appear too pleased with the Sailors' flair and determination, Todd said.

"[The Griffins] were definitely chippy and not happy," he said. "Our transition game frustrated them a lot and put them in the penalty box a lot. And our man-up offense was really clicking on Friday night."

Now the Sailors' confidence is riding high. Their ability to believe in each other has made a difference. Overcoming adversity has also given them a boost.

They didn't really know what to expect this season, as 24 seniors graduated from the program last spring. Newport Harbor returned only two starters from last year's team that captured a tri-championship in the Sunset League, sharing the top spot with Huntington Beach and Los Alamitos.

But the Sailors have refused to let the unknown lead to mediocrity.

The seniors will be honored at the game against Marina Wednesday, senior night (the program starts at 6 p.m.), and many of them have been instrumental in the Sailors' turnaround.

Five of the seniors are captains, Chris Buchanan, who will continue at SMU, midfielder Nate Chaness, who's going to Indiana, Andrew Craft, headed to the Naval Academy, goalie Eli Gutierrez and Kole Escher, who will play at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Escher has been on a tear lately and is on track to break the school record for most goals in a season. He has 43 goals with two big games left in the regular season. The school record is 49, set by Zach Gagnon in 2009. Earlier this season, Escher tied the school record for most goals in a game with seven.

Escher wants to leave the Sailors with the record and then go on to join the Mustangs, who also have Luke Toohey as a Newport Harbor alum.

Escher, who also has 14 assists and 30 groundballs, has had help this season to be sure. With juniors Alex Fuller (23 goals, 19 assists, 22 groundballs) and John Mooers (18 goals, seven assists, 19 groundballs) the trio has accounted for 72% of the team's scoring for the year.

The Sailors also have seniors Brian Ayala and Josh Ford, as well as junior varsity call-ups Trevor Conway, Peter Doyle and Adam Benani that will be honored Wednesday night.

Gutierrez has had contributions in goal from sophomore John Jasper, who has made a big impact during the latter part of the season, Todd said.

Also, the Sailors have improved because of strength in other areas.

Chaness, who has 11 goals, four assists and 37 groundballs, leads the team with 74 faceoffs won, a 54% win ratio.

Buchanan (11 goals, three assists , 36 groundballs) and senior Chaz Beek (four goals, 29 groundballs) have helped provide leadership for a young team.

Newport Harbor has also been defensively sound, led by juniors Blake Lenk (41 takeaways, 26 groundballs) and Liam Whelan (28 takeaways, 28 groundballs) and Craft (28 takeaways, 21 groundballs).

They'll all be needed to help the Sailors finish the regular season strong. Newport Harbor knows it must win and win convincingly against Marina and Edison (in its first season) on Friday night. Playoff berths and seedings will be determined Saturday, Todd said.

Todd hopes there is an atmosphere similar to last week's games. The Sailors can find some motivation in the form of Marina's coach on Wednesday. That would be first-year head man Ryan Abatte, who was an assistant at Newport Harbor before leaving for the Vikings.

Abatte will be able to see the new and improved Sailors, who want to get into the playoffs to show more of their momentum.

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