IRVINE — Newport Harbor High junior girls' water polo player Kate Pipkin got a little bit antsy on the sidelines Wednesday night at Woollett Aquatics Center.
Pipkin was excluded twice in the first quarter of the Sailors' CIF Southern Section Division 1 semifinal match against Santa Barbara. Sitting on the bench proved hard to take. Late in the third, she went swimming in the adjacent warm-up area, peering back into the game pool as the Sailors and Dons did battle.
"I was going nuts on the bench," Pipkin said. "Oh my God."
She re-entered the game for the start of the fourth quarter. A few minutes later, she made all of the Newport Harbor fans in the stands go nuts, too.
Pipkin scored the game-winning goal on a lob with 32 seconds left as the Sailors beat the Dons, 11-10, an another epic battle to advance to the Division 1 finals for the third straight year, and fourth time in five years.
It wasn't decided until the final seconds, when Newport Harbor got a big save at the buzzer by junior goalie Carlee Kapana after a late turnover. But the No. 7 Sailors (23-7) move on to play top-seeded Laguna Beach in the championship match on Saturday back at Woollett, at a time to be announced.
Laguna got past No. 4-seeded Los Alamitos, 12-5, in the second semifinal Wednesday night.
Newport Coach Bill Barnett knows that the Breakers will be big favorites to win their first Division 1 title on Saturday. This wasn't really a concern to him after Wednesday's result. He has the Sailors a game away from capturing their sixth such crown.
"We'll show up," Barnett said of Saturday's match. "I'm just happy to be in the finals. You never know."
Pipkin, who led the Sailors with four goals, provided big plays late against the Dons. The same was true in the teams' previous meeting, when she again scored the game-winning goal in a Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions quarterfinal on Jan. 17.
The score was tied 6-6 entering the fourth quarter, when the teams started trading goals like heavyweight boxers trade uppercuts. Newport junior Chanel Schilling scored from set, but Indiana-bound Santa Barbara senior Anna Brummett answered on a lob from set.
Newport scored the next two goals, one on a backhand shot from set by senior Christina O'Beck and another by senior Heidi Fults, who got open inside and scored with 2:31 left to give Newport Harbor a 9-7 lead. But Coach Mark Walsh's Santa Barbara squad (20-10), which kept coming back in a sudden-death overtime quarterfinal win over Corona del Mar, did it again.
First it was sophomore Jessie Brummett, who scored the game-winner against CdM, connecting from the left side. Then, after Fults fouled out, sophomore Kristina Garcia scored from the right on the six-on-five with 1:04 left. Suddenly, the score was back even at 9-9. Garcia, who led her team with four goals against CdM, did the same against Newport Harbor.
The power play kept Santa Barbara in the game, as it converted four of seven chances. Newport Harbor was one for one with the extra player.
"After watching them play CdM, they were bound to come back," O'Beck said. "It just mattered who scored the last goal, and thank God it was us … we never got comfortable."
Schilling drew a penalty shot, and Pipkin put it away to give the Sailors a 10-9 advantage. But then Santa Barbara senior Erin McGeoy drew her own penalty shot, and Betsy Hendrix scored it with 40 seconds left.
Pipkin's game-winning lob goal came next, on a pass from junior Ellie Reid. And, after Newport junior goalie Carlee Kapana (six second-half saves) made a stop with nine seconds left, the game seemed clinched. But the Sailors made an ill-advised pass into the middle of the pool, and Santa Barbara came up with the steal.
The shot at the buzzer was blocked by Kapana, who also made two big saves in the fourth quarter to stop Santa Barbara counterattacks.
"You can get a great look, and she just can stuff you," Dons Coach Mark Walsh said. "Both of [Newport's goalies] are amazing. We had our counter going, we had some good opportunities, and she definitely made some great saves ... [but my] team is really, really tough. They've really impressed me and really bought into playing for each other and putting their heart and soul into it."
Schilling, a center whose older sister Elissia (now at UCLA) played in two Division 1 title games the last two years, helped the Sailors get back there. She had one of her best games of the season with the two goals, a steal and the exclusion and five-meter penalty shot drawn.
"Finally she found the goal offensively," Barnett said.
Fults and O'Beck each scored twice for the Sailors, and Rachel Whitelegge added a goal. Senior captain Cleo Harrington, the lone remaining starter from the 2012 CIF championship team, made three saves in the first half.
Now the Sailors are, once again, back in the final. That last Saturday of the season once again has Newport Harbor's name on it.
"It feels awesome," Pipkin said. "I saw the 2012 group go in there and win it. They wanted that so badly, and it kind of gives you a fire inside if you, just to say, 'I want to be like them. I want to be where they were. I want to feel what they felt when they won.' Cleo was on that team and she says it's like nothing else in the world, that feeling of winning."
Two men who know a ton about winning met on the pool deck after the match. Longtime El Toro Coach Don Stoll, who retired in 2011 after 30 years at El Toro, came up to Barnett. Stoll congratulated Barnett on the win.
"Those last two timeout plays were wonderful," Stoll told Barnett, referring to Schilling's drawn five-meter and Pipkin's lob. "That was awesome. The kids executed them perfectly. Really nice job. I mean, you can't be doing this too much longer?"
Barnett, who has been coaching at Newport Harbor since 1966 and has said that he would retire after next season, smiled at Stoll.
"No, no, next year is the last year," said Barnett, 71. "I'm running out of gas."
No one can say the same about the Sailors.