Newport Harbor High's Rachel Whitelegge is the Daily Pilot High School Athlete of the Week. (Don Leach, Daily Pilot / February 27, 2014)

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They say that defense wins championships, and that always has seemed to be true for the Newport Harbor High girls' water polo team.

But what makes up a defense? The most obvious piece to the casual fan is the goalie, and the Sailors have two great ones in senior captain Cleo Harrington and junior Carlee Kapana. Everyone in the stands is able to recognize when a goalie makes a huge block.

But what about the center defender, whose perfect positioning on the play made the center shoot the ball with a little less force than she wanted? What about the center defender, who caused the "ball under" call that allowed the team to score a quick counterattack goal?

It might be the least appreciated position in the sport. Newport Harbor junior Rachel Whitelegge knows this, yet she keeps working.

"I feel like I'm supposed to be out there and do my defender thing," Whitelegge said. "If somebody notices, they notice. If they don't, I'm still going to be there, playing defense. Not getting a bunch of spotlight hasn't been a crucial thing for me."

Whitelegge has something more important: her knowledge of the game. She is able to play aggressive set defense, yet she rarely gets into foul trouble. The Daily Pilot Athlete of the Week has stepped up this year for the Sailors, who play against Laguna Beach for the CIF Southern Section Division 1 title Saturday at 1 p.m. at Irvine's Woollett Aquatics Center.

Whitelegge earns the honor for her play in last weekend's 5-4 quarterfinal win over Foothill. She had her usual all-around game, with an assist, a steal and two exclusions drawn. And she played excellent defense on Foothill junior Cana Manzella, who scored just one goal. Manzella is one of the top centers in CIF.

The Sailors used an effective drop defense on Manzella, which helped fellow Newport junior Kate Pipkin record six steals. But Whitelegge's individual defense also shined.

"I've grown up guarding her in games, then she'd get moved up [a level] and she wouldn't be there," Whitelegge said. "She is a great center, and it's hard guarding her, because she's really strong. It's just one of those things. You have to be ready at any instant for the ball to come in, or to find that quick opportunity where she'll have a weak point."

Whitelegge, always calm and composed in the water, has consistently done that for the Sailors. It's helped her earn a team-high 53 steals, more than double anyone else on the Sailors' roster. She also is fifth on the team with 24 goals scored, and has been particularly effective offensively in the Sailors' six-on-five situations.

She is just a smart player, like her older brother Chris, who played goalie at Newport Harbor and now plays at UC Santa Barbara. Chris Whitelegge was an honorable mention All-American this past fall as a redshirt sophomore.

"I've always looked up to him, just because I've seen him do such great things," Rachel Whitelegge said. "It makes me want to be a good player. When we were both younger, we'd always go to each other's games. We still try to go to each other's games. I try to make it up to Santa Barbara whenever I can, and he's coming down this weekend [for the Division 1 final]. I think water polo's helped us become closer, and it's helped me aspire to be better."

Newport Harbor Coach Bill Barnett said the intelligence shows. Whitelegge's father, Julian, works in a biochemistry lab at UCLA. Her mother, Michele, works locally and never misses Rachel's games.

Rachel Whitelegge, a two-year starter who was the team's only sophomore starter last year, has become more of a leader this season. Harrington, who herself was the only sophomore starter on the 2012 team that won CIF, has had a good view of it as another defensive standout.

"She's an amazing set guard," Harrington said. "I just have so much faith in her. She's always got my back ... I've been pretty lucky with set defenders throughout my years."

That is true, with 2012 Newport-Mesa Player of the Year Maddy McLaren (now at UCLA) leading the way two years ago and Avery Peterson (now at USC) last year.

Now, it is Whitelegge back there, not getting too much of the credit but becoming a crucial part of the Sailors' journey back to their third straight Division 1 finals. Call her one of the best defenders in CIF. Or, call her by her nickname, "Rotch." Whitelegge said it was given to her by Newport senior Christina O'Beck and Foothill junior Krista Schneider, when they played together in 14-and-under water polo.

"They would call me 'Rachie-poo,'" Whitelegge said. "One time, instead of saying 'Rachie,' they said 'Rotchie.' It stuck, ever since. At first I got kind of annoyed. I'm like, 'That's not my name.' Then as time's gone on, I'm like, 'Nope, that's me.'"

"Rotch" has another big task against top-seeded Laguna Beach on Saturday. She naturally expects to be matched up against two of the Breakers' top players, junior Makenzie Fischer and her younger sister, freshman Aria. The two sisters lead Laguna in goals scored.

"I think we can definitely win the game, but we need to be on top of everything," Whitelegge said. "We have to be aware of what they're doing, because I think they're always on when they play. They're always ready for the next step, and I think sometimes we get behind. We need to be able to pace ourselves, and keep ourselves up there with them."