Newport Harbor High junior girls' water polo goalie Cleo Harrington is the Daily Pilot High School Athlete of the Week. (KEVIN CHANG, Daily Pilot / January 17, 2013)

Film producer Samuel Goldwyn is credited with the phrase, "The harder I work, the luckier I get."

Goldwyn — the "G" in "MGM" — never got to meet Newport Harbor High junior Cleo Harrington. But even he would probably be impressed with the story of the girl who has risen up through the prep water polo ranks over the last two years.

Harrington definitely has put in the work. She said she wasn't the most coordinated child growing up, and she had trouble finding a sport to stick with. Volleyball was an interest, but she didn't make the team at Ensign Intermediate School.

Water polo became her sport, starting relatively late at the end of seventh grade. But she only shared time in the cage in eighth grade and also her freshman year at Harbor.

That underdog spirit that the Sailors have embraced over the past two years? Harrington embodied it.

But one night, everything seemed to change for her.

Harrington remembers it well, that night nearly two years ago at the Newport Harbor High girls' water polo banquet.

Graduating varsity goalie Sarah Wilkey, now at UCLA, got the coach's award at the banquet from Coach Bill Barnett. The legendary coach also had a few words to say.

"I remember him saying, 'Whoever's going to come up into this varsity goalie spot has some big shoes to fill,'" Harrington said. "Everyone was looking around. There were three other goalies, including myself, at the table. It was like, 'Who's going to do this?'"

Gazes eventually turned to Harrington. Keep in mind that the freshman had just turned 15 years old at the time. Becoming the varsity goalie seemed like a huge step.

After the banquet, Harrington's mother, Kelly, asked her oldest child if she wanted to go for the spot.

The answer was yes. Cleo began training with Merrill Moses, the U.S. men's national team goalie and two-time Olympian.

And less than a year later, days before her sweet 16, Cleo Harrington received a present she will never forget. The varsity starter stood soaking wet on the pool deck at Irvine's Woollett Aquatics Center, clutching the CIF Southern Section Division 1 championship plaque with her teammates.

"It went by so fast," Harrington said. "It was crazy. It was just game after game, we were doing well and kept doing better. With the press and everything, it was amazing. To share that with my teammates, I grew so close with all of the girls on that team. I kept learning all throughout the season, up until the very end. I never expected it to be that great."

Barnett is not surprised that Harrington, who was second-team All-CIF and a Newport-Mesa Dream Team selection as a sophomore, has turned out this great. He saw something in this girl who always seemed to be smiling.

"I had a lot of confidence in her," Barnett said. "She's a very good athlete. She worked very hard through the year to improve, and she obviously did an excellent job at the end of the year."

Harrington, the Daily Pilot Athlete of the Week, credits Barnett and Moses for a lot of her improvement. She worked with Moses during the summer before her sophomore year, as well as throughout the high school season last year.

"He helped me so much," Harrington said. "I was improving in practice and stuff, but he pushed me to points where I didn't even know I could go. He worked me so hard, and it was so worth it."

Harrington stood out last weekend at the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions as well. She helped sixth-seeded Newport Harbor (13-4) finish a strong second place, falling to the host Dons in the title match. Harrington had a season-high 14 saves as the Sailors upset rival Corona del Mar, 8-7, in a tournament quarterfinal.

Senior co-captains Elissia Schilling and Carly Christian were the Sailors' all-tournament team selections, but a case could easily be made for Harrington. Cal-bound Santa Barbara goalie Maddie Trabucco was the tournament MVP, but there was the sense that Harrington was right up there as well as an elite goalie in that title match.