The Los Alamitos High girls' water polo team seemed to be full of surprises Wednesday night.
Coach Dave Carlson surprised some at the game, publicly saying for the first time that he plans to step down as Griffins girls' coach after 15 years.
In the water, the Griffins also surprised host Newport Harbor by staying in a hard press defense virtually the whole time.
And Los Alamitos used it to produce another surprise, a 6-5 upset victory that gives the Griffins their first Sunset League title in three seasons. Newport Harbor, the two-time defending league champion, finishes in second place for just the second time since joining the league in 2006.
Now the only possible surprise for the Sailors, ranked No. 4 in CIF Southern Section Division 1, is how far they will drop when the playoff brackets are released Sunday at 9 a.m.
Newport Harbor (19-7, 4-1 in league), which was ranked No. 2 in CIF just two weeks ago, appears likely to drop to No. 6. That would mean a possible quarterfinal showdown with its Back Bay rival, No. 3 CdM, and a harder path to the championship match.
Los Alamitos (19-8, 5-0), ranked No. 7, seems likely to move up to either No. 4 or 5 as Sunset League champion. Since CIF rules prohibit the top two teams in a league from being on the same side of the bracket, Newport Harbor would drop to No. 6.
Give credit to Carlson's Griffins, who appear to be peaking as the playoffs loom.
"I think we have a really good press defense," Carlson said. "The girls are in really good condition, and they're really mobile. A lot of teams will press, and at the first time of trouble they'll retreat into a zone. I was really proud of the girls for not doing that. For us to win this game, we were going to have to stay in a man-to-man defense. And our goalie made huge saves when we did have to zone."
Los Alamitos stayed in the press, even as Newport senior Christina O'Beck was hot early. She scored twice from center in the first quarter, countering goals by Los Al junior Sarah Seipker, and the teams were knotted at 2-2 after the quarter. Seipker finished with two goals and four steals.
But Los Al took a 4-2 lead into halftime, after sophomore Abbey Blake scored on a backhand from set and senior Ellia Weber skipped in a shot from outside.
"We've really improved a lot in the last two weeks," Carlson said. "Something I've learned in the girls' game is that the morale of the team is huge, and the morale has been really up. They've been really confident the last two weeks, that they're a good team."
The Griffins continued building their lead early in the third quarter. Senior Corinna Toledo beat a double-team to score from set, then Karley Kraft scored off a field block, and the Griffins had a 6-2 advantage.
Junior Rachel Whitelegge brought Newport Harbor closer just 17 seconds later, on a lob from the outside. But offensively, the Sailors appeared lost for much of the game. Senior Heidi Fults drew a power-play in the final minute of the third quarter, but a bad pass led to a steal by Los Al senior Becca Corb. Another bad pass early in the fourth quarter was stolen by Griffins senior Erika Pauley.
And the Sailors were scoreless in three six-on-five chances. Los Al converted one of its two opportunities.
"The defenses we had been practicing that we knew that they typically ran, they didn't," said Whitelegge, who led Newport with four steals. "That messed with our heads. We weren't as prepared ... I thought we played really flat on offense. It took a while for us to realize what we needed to do, and how to get it done.
"At the beginning we just sort of sat around, like, 'Oh, we need the ball to get to that side,' but we couldn't do it. As the game went on, we started to pick up on that more, but it took us a while."
Ellie Reid scored from the outside with 2:43 left to bring Newport within 6-4. But Los Al junior goalie Kennedy Joseph (nine saves) dived to her left, making a big save on Kate Pipkin with just less than two minutes left. Then, with 52 seconds remaining, Toledo made a field block on Whitelegge's shot from outside.
Newport junior Chanel Schilling scored from set with 12 seconds left, but the Griffins just had to play keep-away and the league title was theirs.
Carlee Kapana made four saves and Cleo Harrington added two for the Sailors, who close out their regular season at Riverside Poly on Friday at 3 p.m.
They have lost three straight games, a rarity at Newport Harbor. And they have not made it easy on themselves if they want a lengthy CIF run.
"I think we were looking too far ahead, to who we'd match up with in the quarters or semis [of CIF] if we won this game, as opposed to focusing on winning this game," Whitelegge said. "[Playoffs are] so close, so we're just always peeking a little bit, like, 'Oh, we could be here!' I think we were getting too excited for that.
"It's going to be a harder road to get [to CIF finals now]. It saves the hardest for last ... [but] this was a hard one to lose. That was probably the most important game of the season."