IRVINE — Carly Christian is used to being called the underdog.
She heard it often during her last two years at Newport Harbor High. That didn't stop her from helping lead the Sailors to the 2012 CIF Southern Section Division 1 title, and a repeat finals appearance last February.
Christian, bound for UC Santa Barbara, played for Santa Barbara Water Polo Club 18-and-under team at this year's USA Water Polo Junior Olympics. Santa Barbara was the defending division champion, yet many considered SOCAL Black the tournament favorite.
"I kind of knew what it felt like," said Christian, who did something about it.
She helped Santa Barbara capture gold. Christian had a goal in regulation and a goal in the ensuing shootout as Santa Barbara topped SOCAL in the semifinals Sunday morning at Beckman High. Then she drew two exclusions and had a field block as Santa Barbara topped Huntington Beach Blue, 8-5, in the championship match Sunday afternoon at UC Irvine.
Christian remarked to a teammate as they were taking a team picture that she hasn't had this experience before. But it's one she won't soon forget.
"It's pretty cool," said Christian, a two-time Newport-Mesa Dream Team selection who led Newport with 73 goals as a senior co-captain. "I mean, it's not as exciting as winning CIF my junior year, but it's definitely way, way up there. No. 2 for sure."
On Santa Barbara's club team, Christian played for her college coach, Cathy Neushul. But Christian was not allowed to practice with Santa Barbara earlier this summer, as she didn't live within a 50-mile radius of the club. Neushul said Christian didn't become eligible to practice with for the Santa Barbara club team until Aug. 1 — the first day of Junior Olympics.
"It was quite phenomenal, because she fit in really well with that team," Neushul said. "She's just a phenomenal player. I cannot wait for her arrival [at UCSB]. She's easy to coach … First of all, she comes from Bill Barnett. She's a phenomenal player because of him, and I'll recruit anyone from Newport.
"She understands the game well, and she's fast. She's small, but she plays big, and she's unselfish. Very characteristic of a Bill Barnett player, and she fits really well into our style. We play fast, counterattack, quick water polo."
Santa Barbara was able to bounce back from its only loss of the tournament, a 10-7 setback to SET on Saturday. Cal-bound Santa Barbara High graduate Maddie Trabucco, the goalie, made nine saves in the championship match and earned tournament MVP honors. Another Dons alumna, Kelsey O'Brien (UCLA), led the team with three goals. Neushul's daughter Jamie, who played for Dos Pueblos and is bound for Stanford, added two goals, as did her former Dos Pueblos teammate Shannon Cleary.
Former Los Alamitos star Stephanie Mutafyan led Huntington Beach with three goals. But HB struggled mightily on the power play, where it was three for 11. Santa Barbara finished two for five.
Santa Barbara led by as many as five goals, at 6-1 early in the second half.
"We work really hard on [five-on-six]," Cathy Neushul said. "These girls have been playing together since they were 12 years old, and it was very evident. They've been in every JO final since they were 11 years old. This was the toughest, with the all-star team formed there [at SOCAL]. You know, we lost early to SET, [but] these girls know how to win. They really do. That's a tribute to them. This is one of the sweetest ones for them."
SOCAL Black, which featured recent graduates from Corona del Mar High (Cassidy Papa, Stephania Haralabidis and Ioanna Haralabidis) and Newport Harbor (Avery Peterson and Elissia Schilling), ended up fourth at Junior Olympics. SOCAL lost to SET, 7-6, in the bronze-medal match Sunday at El Toro High.
Schilling and both Haralabidis twins each scored in the semifinal loss to Santa Barbara. Peterson had a pair of steals.
Papa assisted Haley Wan on a goal with 1:27 left in regulation, tying the score at 7-7. Both Trabucco and SOCAL goalie Kelsey Rowland made a save in the shootout, but it ended when a SOCAL shot smacked off the crossbar.