Carly Christian got to experience winning a CIF Southern Section Division 1 title a year early.
Like many prep water polo players, Christian thought that her senior year would be her best shot at the title. But she helped the upstart Newport Harbor High girls' water polo team win CIF last February as a junior, coming from behind for a thrilling 8-7 victory over rival Corona del Mar.
The trip through the season was thrilling for Newport Harbor, which had lost three of four previous meetings to CdM and had started the year ranked just No. 5 in Division 1.
"Last year we weren't expecting to win," Christian said. "Me and Elissia [Schilling] were expecting to win it our senior year, so last year kind of surprised us. But we know how it feels now to win, and we want to take that and keep it for this year. We need to keep the confidence up. That feeling of winning last year, we don't want to lose that this year."
Christian and Schilling, who have grown up playing water polo together, are now senior co-captains for the Sailors (7-3). They are doing everything in their power to help the Sailors go back-to-back.
Christian, the Daily Pilot Athlete of the Week, has stepped up as Newport Harbor's leading scorer. She has 28 goals. Her speed has been a constant for the Sailors in her three years on varsity, but her shot has improved enough to where she typically now takes penalty shots for the team.
Christian scored seven goals last weekend as Newport Harbor, ranked No. 3 in Division 1, finished third in the Holiday Cup. The Sailors bounced back from a 7-6 loss to Santa Barbara in the semifinals to beat CdM, 7-4, in the third-place match. Christian then added three more goals Wednesday as Newport Harbor beat Edison, 11-5, to open Sunset League play.
The quickness factor is big for Christian, who is just 5-foot-5. She's been a varsity swimmer since her freshman year. She wins the majority of quarter-opening sprints for the Sailors and is deadly on the counterattack.
The speed — and opponents' tendency to grab her to stop her drives — also makes Christian one of the team leaders in exclusions drawn.
"Because of her speed, people latch onto her," Newport Harbor Coach Bill Barnett said. "She's just very quick, very fast. She's a really good swimmer and a really good shooter. She helps a lot on defense too. Because of her quickness and speed, she can crash a lot on two meters. She makes a lot of steals that way."
She has been playing the sport since she was 7, and a lifeguard with the Newport Beach Junior Lifeguards since she was 9. Christian also played a lot of soccer growing up, as a forward and goalie. But water polo seemed destined to be her primary sport.
When she was 11 and 12, Christian was on dominant under-12 teams with Newport Water Polo Foundation. In the summer of 2006, Christian and Schilling were on a team that finished third at the Junior Olympics, along with players like Ally McCormick, Cassidy Papa and Pippa Saunders of CdM. The next year Christian helped the Newport squad to fifth at Junior Olympics.
Just months later her older brother, Myles, was a starting goalkeeper on the Sailors boys' team that captured the Division 1 title. That 2007 CIF title remains the most recent one for Newport Harbor's boys.
Myles Christian has gone on to have a stellar career at UC Santa Barbara, where Carly also is headed to play water polo. Carly said her older brother, who was a senior team captain for the Gauchos this fall, is readying for a career as a firefighter.
"He has an internship with the fire department in Santa Barbara right now," Carly Christian said. "He'll be living there while I'm there, which is cool. He's my best friend. He gives me so many tips on water polo, school, friends, everything. I thank him so much for everything. He's definitely my biggest role model, and I don't know what I would do without him at all. Seeing him succeed in this sport makes me want to succeed that much more."
Christian emerged last year as a junior, when she was a first-team All-Sunset League and first-team All-CIF selection. In her first year as a starter, she had 56 goals, a team-high 32 assists and 44 steals.
She and the Sailors are succeeding, even after graduating three senior starters, including Newport-Mesa Player of the Year Maddy McLaren (UCLA) and Dream Team member Presley Pender (Michigan). Other players, like junior Christina O'Beck and sophomore Rachel Whitelegge, have stepped up.
Christian is more than comfortable talking about the team's success. She knows that teamwork is the way the Sailors captured the Division 1 title last year.
"I'm so proud of my team right now," Christian said. "Everyone's working hard in practice. We know what we have to do to win these games, and we're doing everything that we can in practice. We're working hard, we're working on our counters. Everyone's working together, and it's showing in our games right now. It's great."
The Sailors might not have been shown much respect this season, either. They opened the year ranked just No. 4 in CIF. Before the Holiday Cup, they were ranked just No. 5 in Orange County, but they moved up three spots this week.
Christian said the players don't really have to worry about outside expectations. Last year, they didn't end up mattering.
"We have confidence in our team, and 'Coach B' has confidence in us," she said. "That's all we really need. I wouldn't be here today without Coach B or [assistant coach Brian] Melstrom, and what they have done with this program and with us. I wouldn't be going to UC Santa Barbara if it wasn't for them. Everything that I know about water polo is because of them, too, and I couldn't be more grateful."
But college is still down the road. Right now, Christian is leading her team as it looks to defend its CIF hardware.
"To do it again our senior year, I don't even know how I'd feel," she said. "I still think about that game every single day. I literally think about it every single day. Just the feeling of coming back and winning, I can't even describe it.
"If we won it again," she added with a big smile, "I would be the happiest person in the world."
Born: July 16, 1995
Hometown: Newport Beach
Sport: Water polo
Coach: Bill Barnett
Favorite food: Steak
Favorite movie: "The Hangover"
Favorite athletic moment: Helping Newport Harbor win the CIF Southern Section Division 1 title last year.
Week in review: Christian scored seven goals in the four-game Holiday Cup tournament Dec. 28-29. She helped Newport Harbor place third.