Eleven members of the Laguna Beach High girls' water polo program played key roles for two SET (Saddleback-El Toro) Water Polo Club teams that won gold and bronze medals Sunday at the 44th annual USA Junior Olympics.
The SET 16U girls' team, coached by Ethan Damato, head coach of the boys' and girls' water polo teams at Laguna Beach High, claimed gold in the 16U girls' Championship division but had to climb back from a quarterfinal-round loss to take the title.
SET dropped a 9-8 quarterfinal game to Commerce and had to win its next game, in order to reach the semifinals. SET won that game, 9-8, against Santa Barbara. In the semifinals, SET defeated Rose Bowl, 9-4, and went on to face Commerce in a rematch.
This time, SET took a 6-4 victory and the gold medal in the final played at UC Irvine.
SET finished with a tournament record of 7-1.
The team includes Laguna Beach High players: sophomore-to-be Holly Parker, a goalie who was named the tournament MVP for the division; Brighid Burnes (driver, Jr.), Taylor Julson (driver, Jr.), Haley Evans (driver, Soph.), Natalie Selin (driver, Soph.) and Bella Baldridge (driver/utility, incoming freshman). Trevor Lyle, an assistant coach at Laguna Beach High, is an assistant coach to the SET 16U team.
The SET 18U girls' team won the bronze medal. The squad won six of seven games, its only loss a 13-9 semifinals setback to Huntington Beach. Prior to its only loss, SET defeated the division's eventual gold-medal winning team, Santa Barbara, 10-7, in the quarterfinals.
In the third-place game, SET edged SOCAL Black "A," 7-6, at El Toro High to take bronze.
Five current or former members of the Laguna Beach High girls' water polo program played on the SET 16s team: Lexi Del Toro (attacker, Harvard), Sydney Saxe (defender, Princeton), Mackenzie Baldridge (attacker, UC Santa Barbara), Jenna Knott (goalie, senior), and Makenzie Fischer (utility, Jr.). The team is coached by Brad Schumacher, a gold medal-winning U.S. Olympian in swimming who also played on the U.S. Olympic men's water polo team. Damato is an assistant coach to the team.
"It's the hardest tournament to win and an accomplishment I am very proud of," Damato said of the Junior Olympics which featured the top qualifying teams from across the country. "This year's group of 16s was the most dedicated group I have ever had. I'm not surprised their hard work and commitment paid off.
"On top of being committed and hard working, we have an extremely talented group of young ladies, as well. We have six girls from Laguna Beach (High), three from El Toro, three from San Clemente, and one player (each) from Irvine, Trabuco Hills and Hanford. We had all the pieces needed to have a deep, balance team that can attack you in so many ways.
"To add to all of that, they loved each other, believed in each other and wanted to fight for one another. It was a very special run and one that I'll always remember. This was a great year for the club getting both 16s & 18s into the semis in the same year and medaling both teams in the same year. "
Laguna Beach Water Polo teams in top 10
Three teams from Laguna Beach Water Polo competed in Session 2 of the Junior Olympics and two of those teams, the 10U coed and 14U girls, earned top-10 placements in their respective divisions.
Laguna's 12U girls' team, which won two games, finished 12th among 24 teams in the 12U girls' Championship division.
The 10U coed team took fifth out of 24 teams and went 5-2 in the 10U Coed Championship division. In the fifth-place game, Laguna scored a 10-5 victory over SOCAL Black Sunday at El Toro High.
"I am really proud of our Laguna Beach team," 10U Coach Albie Beeler said. "We worked really hard, stayed in the game the whole time and we definitely earned the fifth-place position in the nation."
Laguna's 14U girls' team took ninth among 48 teams and won six of eight games. Laguna defeated Commerce, 10.4-10.2, in a shootout in the seventh-place game Sunday at Aliso Niguel High.
"Although the team didn't reach the team goal at this year's JOs, over the course of the season this very young team improved tremendously," Laguna 14U girls' Coach Erich Fischer said. "Even though we are disappointed in our finish we competed very well against the top teams in the country. We beat the Junior Olympic champion three out of three times this year and we had a cumulative winning record against the top four Junior Olympic finishers. "