A shocking development took place Saturday afternoon at Newport Harbor High.
For the first time in three years, the Newport Harbor and Corona del Mar girls' water polo teams did not meet each other in a high school tournament.
The teams that have met in the CIF Southern Section Division 1 title match the last two years did not face off in this weekend's Holiday Cup. Yet the Sailors and Sea Kings each found positives to the first tournament of their season, after winning three out of four games.
Newport Harbor advanced to the title match before losing to tournament favorite Laguna Beach, 11-8, on Saturday at Newport Harbor High. And CdM bounced back from a tough semifinal loss to the Breakers to beat Foothill, 6-3, in the third-place match.
"I was very pleased with our performance," Newport Harbor Coach Bill Barnett said. "I thought it was a very good tournament for us, and for Corona."
After rallying from a two-goal deficit in the fourth quarter to stun Foothill, 4-3, in the semifinals, Newport Harbor (7-2) hung tough for nearly the whole game against Laguna Beach (9-0). The Sailors took a 6-5 lead early in the second half on a power-play goal by senior Heidi Fults. The Breakers scored four unanswered goals, but Newport Harbor answered with a goal by Ellie Reid, then a penalty shot score from Fults (drawn by Kate Pipkin) early in the fourth quarter.
That made it 9-8, Laguna Beach, but the Sailors could not score again. Laguna junior Makenzie Fischer, who has played recently with the U.S. women's senior national team, did not have that problem.
Fischer scored to give the Breakers a two-goal cushion. Then she struck again, off a foul just outside of five meters, with 1:42 left in the game. Barnett protested loudly that the foul shouldn't have been called, but Laguna was on its way to claiming its first Holiday Cup title in program history.
Fischer finished with five goals, two steals and four exclusions drawn. The scary thought for the Breakers' competition is that Coach Ethan Damato called Fischer's little sister Aria, a freshman who did not play in the Holiday Cup due to having her tonsils taken out, the team's second-best offensive option. Laguna also is currently missing sophomore Mia Salvini, a transfer from Mater Dei who is not yet eligible.
"Having Makenzie Fischer opens a lot of things up," Damato said. "She's a pretty special shooter. I think that makes things a little bit easier, but I was really pleased with the way the girls executed this weekend, especially today.
"Newport does a great job in team defense. They're one of, if not the best, teams. [They play] well together. We know they're going to put a good girl on [Fischer] and have somebody coming quick. [But] I thought she was great on both ends of the pool and asserted herself. She was aggressive, but not over-aggressive. I thought it was a really nice balance."
Fults and Reid each had three goals in the final, senior Christina O'Beck scored twice and junior Rachel Whitelegge added four steals. Senior goalkeeper Cleo Harrington and junior Carlee Kapana each made seven saves, but the Sailors allowed Laguna to convert four of five power-play chances. Newport Harbor was three of six with the extra player.
"We didn't do a very good job of stopping them on six-on-five," Barnett said. "They like to go into the post, but we didn't drop enough to stop them."
In semifinal action, the Sailors had to rally past Foothill for the second time this year to get to the title match. It seemingly came out of nowhere, as the Knights built a 3-1 lead after three quarters behind goals from Cana Manzella, Reagan Denny and Julia Sellers.
Newport Harbor got within a goal with 4:30 left in the game, when Reid scored from the right. Then Reid scored again from the right, on a cross-cage lob with 1:58 remaining.
After Kapana made a save with less than a minute left, Newport had a chance to take the lead. The Sailors capitalized, as Whitelegge took the pass from Pipkin and scored off the face of the Foothill goalie with 24 seconds left. Kapana swam out to steal Foothill's entry pass into set in the waning seconds.
"I guess our strategy is to pull through to the very end," said Reid, who had three goals. "We're kind of known, I feel like, for being a fourth-quarter team. I think that gets our motivation high. The fourth quarter, we know we need to do what we've got to do.
"Going into the game, I tried to clear my mind of what happened last game, just so I didn't have any expectations in my head. But it was definitely nice to beat them again, just to prove to ourselves that we can do it. We had some not-so-great moments, but I think we overcame them as a team and got the job done."
The Sailors won despite going one for seven on the power play. Five of the exclusions were drawn by Fults. Whitelegge had a goal and a pair of steals, while both Newport Harbor goalies also had strong games. Harrington and Kapana each made nine saves in a half of action.
CdM, meanwhile, fell behind Laguna Beach early in its semifinal, trailing 7-1 midway through the second quarter after Taylor Julson struck from eight meters. The Sea Kings (5-1) cut the deficit to four by halftime, on a pair of goals by junior Grace Morgan, but couldn't get closer.
Morgan and Maddie Musselman each scored twice for CdM, while seniors Annie Mortimer and Bobbi Hoose added goals. Heidi Ritner made nine saves. The Sea Kings struggled on six-on-five, converting just one of six opportunities, while the Breakers converted five of seven.
But the Sea Kings bounced back, helped a lot by a breakout type of tournament by Morgan, who was playing in her first varsity tournament. Morgan collected three goals and two steals, as well as a key five-on-six field block, in a 6-3 third-place victory over Foothill. One of the goals came on a nice backhand shot from center, a position she rarely plays.
"I think we had a pretty good tournament overall," Morgan said. "I'm definitely looking forward to playing Laguna again … We're really good at bouncing back as a team."
CdM never trailed the third-place match. Musselman added two goals and three steals, while senior center Marina Coskinas had a goal and a steal. Ritner made nine saves.
Both Newport Harbor and CdM return to action with key games on Wednesday. CdM plays host to Foothill at 4 p.m. in a nonleague game, and Newport Harbor plays host to Edison in its Sunset League opener at 7 p.m.