SANTA BARBARA — It is really an unexplainable statistic.

The Newport Harbor High girls' water polo team has never won the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions title.

Newport assistant coach Brian Melstrom questioned Santa Barbara Coach Mark Walsh about it, so the two men looked at the tournament program. And indeed, they discovered that the Sailors had finished in second place seven times since 2003.

"I said, 'I think [Coach Bill] Barnett likes to lose the last game and maybe make the girls hungry for the rest of the way,' " Walsh said. "And [Melstrom] is like, 'No, I don't think that's it.' "

The Sailors did not come to Santa Barbara this weekend to get to the championship match and lose. But Walsh and his host Dons made sure Newport again got second billing.

Make it eight times as runner-up. Santa Barbara separated itself in the third quarter and won the championship match, 7-5, on Saturday afternoon at Santa Barbara High.

Cal-bound goalie Maddie Trabucco of Santa Barbara was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player and was joined on the all-tournament team by her UCLA-bound teammate Kelsey O'Brien. Newport Harbor had both of its co-captains, UCLA-bound center Elissia Schilling and UC Santa Barbara-bound Carly Christian, make the all-tournament team.

So how can the Sailors (11-4) explain finishing second so many times in Santa Barbara, including three of the past four years? Perhaps there is no explanation.

"We didn't try to lose," said Schilling, an all-tournament team selection for the second straight year. "I don't know. All the time [we're playing to win]. I don't really know how that all works out. I'd rather be winning in the second part of our season. I mean, this is a huge tournament. A lot of people say that this is the hardest tournament out of the three.

"Getting second in this really will boost our confidence going into the Irvine tournament, which leads right into CIF. That's when our team, as a whole, wants to be playing our best water polo."

The Sailors were up, 3-2, at halftime in the title match. All three goals were scored by Christian, two on six-on-five advantages.

But the third quarter was Newport Harbor's undoing. The Sailors were outscored, 5-2, in the quarter.

"We had a hard time communicating, whether to stay [in a] drop [defense], or go press," Schilling said. "That led to about three or four goals, I think, on outside shots. We just can't let that happen next time."

Neither team scored in the final quarter. That was OK with the Dons, who captured their first TOC title since 2004. Kami Craig, who went on to star at USC and is a two-time Olympian, was a junior on that Santa Barbara team.

UCSB-bound Sophie Trabucco and Betsy Hendrix each scored twice for Santa Barbara, while Anna Brummett and Rocio Fesembeck led the defensive effort with four steals each. Maddie Trabucco made nine saves.

Santa Barbara, which struggled at the start of the season but has placed second and first in the season's first two tournaments, has perhaps staked its case for the top ranking in CIF Southern Section Division 1.

"This group of seniors, when they came in as freshmen, they were pretty big pieces of our varsity then," Walsh said. "They've kind of taken their lumps and put in their time, and we've got a little better each year … For us to beat Foothill and Newport in one day is a huge accomplishment. I'm really proud of the girls; they played really well all weekend."

Christian had the three goals and sophomore Rachel Whitelegge scored twice for the Sailors. Carolyn Smith had a pair of steals, and goalie Cleo Harrington had another strong match with 12 saves.

The Sailors can find inspiration from what happened last year, when the Sailors also finished second in the TOC. They didn't lose again, ending the year on a 16-match winning streak that culminated in the program's fifth CIF Division 1 title.

"This is just another stepping stone toward CIF, and I think we're just slowly building as a team," Harrington said. "It's only going to go up from here."

Schilling led the team with three goals in a 7-5 victory over Santa Margarita in a Tournament of Champions semifinal earlier Saturday. Christina O'Beck scored twice and Christian and Avery Peterson added goals.

Harrington made 10 saves for Newport Harbor, which rallied after Cal-bound Santa Margarita senior Emily Loughlin scored twice in the first quarter.

The match was tied at 4 heading into the fourth quarter, but the Sailors got a Schilling backhand goal to take a 5-4 lead.

Santa Margarita's Haley Wan again tied the score, but a Christian penalty shot (earned by Whitelegge) and O'Beck's score on Christian's cross pass helped Newport Harbor pull away.

"I think our conditioning really paid off in that game," Schilling said.

Top-seeded Foothill beat Santa Margarita, 9-5, in the third-place match.

matthew.szabo@latimes.com

Twitter: @mjszabo