NEWPORT BEACH — Newport Harbor High boys' water polo Coach Robert Lynn said he loved the back-and-forth nature of Tuesday's game against Long Beach Wilson.
The teams traded goals, field blocks and big saves for the duration.
"I liked that game," Lynn said. "Even if we would have lost, I'd tell you the same thing. I wish we had that game every week for 10 months in a row. It's only going to help us get better."
Of course, Lynn also liked that the Sailors were able to come out with the victory.
Newport Harbor senior Curtis Fink scored the game-winning goal with 1:05 left to lift the Sailors past the Bruins, 10-9, in the nonleague match at Newport Harbor High.
Lynn, a Long Beach resident who coached many of the Wilson players as they grew up in youth water polo, said he told Wilson senior Jackson Kimbell after the game that he wouldn't be surprised to see the Bruins, last year's CIF Southern Section Division 2 champions, in the Division 1 final.
"Those guys are talented kids," Lynn said. "They've got the makings right there. Jackson's a very strong kid, and Maxwell [Irving] is a very disciplined, good, creative shooter. We knew it was going to be difficult for us. This is our first real challenge."
Kimbell and Irving played with Newport Beach Water Polo Club over the summer, helping the club get a bronze medal in the 18-and-under division at the USA Water Polo Junior Olympics. On Tuesday, they almost helped hand the Sailors (2-0), ranked No. 2 in Division 1, their first loss of the season.
Wilson, ranked No. 6 in Division 1, led for much of the match. The Bruins (0-1) got three first-quarter goals from Kimbell, and had a 7-5 halftime advantage.
But Newport Harbor used some good offense and standout play by senior goalie Wyatt Muller (nine saves) to rally back. Muller, who has been battling leg tendinitis and didn't play in last week's season opener against Foothill, blocked Kimbell's penalty shot early in the third quarter that would have given Wilson an 8-5 edge.
"Big momentum swing," Lynn said. "Jackson Kimbell comes up to the plate, 240 pounds coming at you, right? And Wyatt just blocked the heck out of it. He had such a good block, and it motivated everyone."
Senior defender Dan Stevens also got going offensively. He fired one into the near corner from the right wing to bring Newport within a goal. Then, after senior center Andrew Silvers drew a five-meter penalty shot, Stevens put it away to knot the score at 7-7 with 2:58 left in the third quarter.
Senior Preston Lee then had a steal at mid-tank, feeding Ryan Warde for a counterattack goal that gave the Sailors their first lead of the half.
They didn't keep it, despite another penalty shot attempt from Irving that hit off the right post. Wilson eventually tied the score on a six-on-five strike from Irving with 4:35 left in the game. Just more than two minutes later, Irving scored on a shot from five meters, and Wilson had regained the lead.
But Stevens scored from the outside into the upper-right corner with two minutes remaining. The Sailors got the ball back after a timeout, and Fink gave them the lead with a strong move at two meters.
"We really wanted to come back," Stevens said. "We're focused on a championship, so when we're down like that, we need to come back with championship intensity and really focus on the ultimate goal."
Muller again stepped up at the end, blocking Irving's shot. A follow-up attempt from the left by Jake Davis went off the bar, and Newport Harbor was able to run out the clock.
"[Muller] played phenomenally, especially in the second half," Stevens said. "That really fired me up. I love good defense, you know?"
Stevens scored three goals for Newport Harbor, while Fink and Mitch Mendoza had two each. Lee and Silvers also scored, and Lee led all players with three steals.
Kimbell had the three goals, but Stevens helped hold him scoreless after the first quarter. Irving and junior Murphy Slater had two goals each for Wilson, which appears to be a Division 1 contender. Coach Tony Martinho said he is "elated" that the Bruins are back in Division 1.
"I don't know how else to explain it," Martinho said. "We kind of always felt like we belonged there."
Nobody who saw Tuesday's contest would argue. The Sailors have another difficult task in their next game, when they play host to San Diego Section powerhouse Coronado on Saturday evening.
"Coronado's not going to be a joke," Lynn said. "That's going to be another down-to-the-wire [game], I feel. But I'm excited for those things."