Film producer Samuel Goldwyn is credited with the phrase, "The harder I work, the luckier I get."
Goldwyn — the "G" in "MGM" — never got to meet Newport Harbor High junior Cleo Harrington. But even he would probably be impressed with the story of the girl who has risen up through the prep water polo ranks over the last two years.
Harrington definitely has put in the work. She said she wasn't the most coordinated child growing up, and she had trouble finding a sport to stick with. Volleyball was an interest, but she didn't make the team at Ensign Intermediate School.
Water polo became her sport, starting relatively late at the end of seventh grade. But she only shared time in the cage in eighth grade and also her freshman year at Harbor.
That underdog spirit that the Sailors have embraced over the past two years? Harrington embodied it.
But one night, everything seemed to change for her.
Harrington remembers it well, that night nearly two years ago at the Newport Harbor High girls' water polo banquet.
Graduating varsity goalie Sarah Wilkey, now at UCLA, got the coach's award at the banquet from Coach Bill Barnett. The legendary coach also had a few words to say.
"I remember him saying, 'Whoever's going to come up into this varsity goalie spot has some big shoes to fill,'" Harrington said. "Everyone was looking around. There were three other goalies, including myself, at the table. It was like, 'Who's going to do this?'"
Gazes eventually turned to Harrington. Keep in mind that the freshman had just turned 15 years old at the time. Becoming the varsity goalie seemed like a huge step.
After the banquet, Harrington's mother, Kelly, asked her oldest child if she wanted to go for the spot.
The answer was yes. Cleo began training with Merrill Moses, the U.S. men's national team goalie and two-time Olympian.
And less than a year later, days before her sweet 16, Cleo Harrington received a present she will never forget. The varsity starter stood soaking wet on the pool deck at Irvine's Woollett Aquatics Center, clutching the CIF Southern Section Division 1 championship plaque with her teammates.
"It went by so fast," Harrington said. "It was crazy. It was just game after game, we were doing well and kept doing better. With the press and everything, it was amazing. To share that with my teammates, I grew so close with all of the girls on that team. I kept learning all throughout the season, up until the very end. I never expected it to be that great."
Barnett is not surprised that Harrington, who was second-team All-CIF and a Newport-Mesa Dream Team selection as a sophomore, has turned out this great. He saw something in this girl who always seemed to be smiling.
"I had a lot of confidence in her," Barnett said. "She's a very good athlete. She worked very hard through the year to improve, and she obviously did an excellent job at the end of the year."
Harrington, the Daily Pilot Athlete of the Week, credits Barnett and Moses for a lot of her improvement. She worked with Moses during the summer before her sophomore year, as well as throughout the high school season last year.
"He helped me so much," Harrington said. "I was improving in practice and stuff, but he pushed me to points where I didn't even know I could go. He worked me so hard, and it was so worth it."
Harrington stood out last weekend at the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions as well. She helped sixth-seeded Newport Harbor (13-4) finish a strong second place, falling to the host Dons in the title match. Harrington had a season-high 14 saves as the Sailors upset rival Corona del Mar, 8-7, in a tournament quarterfinal.
Senior co-captains Elissia Schilling and Carly Christian were the Sailors' all-tournament team selections, but a case could easily be made for Harrington. Cal-bound Santa Barbara goalie Maddie Trabucco was the tournament MVP, but there was the sense that Harrington was right up there as well as an elite goalie in that title match.
"That's really nice," Harrington said. "It's amazing. I'm so flattered that so many people support me so much, and think of me at such a high level. Last year, to be placed on the same level as [CdM goalie] Alex [Musselman], to get to do that [pre-CIF finals feature] article with her, that was such an honor too."
Harrington said she is glad she played well in Santa Barbara, because she felt she had started out slow this season. If there is one thing about her, it is that she is honest and genuine. Barnett said she is "always happy," but it goes beyond that.
She is a positive force for Newport Harbor, ranked No. 3 in Division 1. She is mature for her age, a sweet girl who still manages to be one of the most competitive athletes in the water at any time.
"She never is in a bad mood," Newport senior defender Avery Peterson said. "She's always helpful, and wants to help anyone in any way. There's nothing you can say bad about her. It's hard to describe. She never lets any obstacles get in her way. She doesn't see any losses as a bad thing, it's more something as a team that we need to work on.
"Last year, she was really young, but she obviously showed anybody who had any doubt in her. In my opinion, she's the best goalie in CIF right now. She's gained a lot of experience from last year and is using it to become even better, which is hard to believe."
Harrington is one of two great goalies for Newport Harbor. The other is sophomore Carlee Kapana, who plays on junior varsity. Kapana played for Team USA at the FINA Youth World Championships in Perth, Australia, last month.
Harrington said it's great to have Kapana as a teammate. While Kapana was gone in Australia, the Sailors had field players fill in as goalie during practice.
"It was pathetic how bad we were compared to Cleo," Newport senior Carolyn Smith said. "During that time, I just gained so much respect for her as a goalie. She can block everything, practically. Cleo is definitely the best goalie in CIF, no question. She's one of the only goalies that gets to say that she's won a CIF Division 1 title, as a sophomore … [and] I haven't heard her say one mean thing to anybody. She's kind of like a glue, I guess. She meshes well with everybody.
"With Cleo, it's not just in the pool. You can talk to her about anything outside of it, and she's a really good listener. In the water or on land, you can just have your trust in 'Clee.'"
Now water polo is meshing well with the Harrington family. Kelly, a hairdresser, does the hair of many of the girls on the team. And both of Cleo's younger brothers, Elliott and William, now play the sport.
Cleo's father Geoff, who works for a law firm, also is a musician. He is the singer/songwriter/keyboardist for the electro-rock group Mphase.
The Harringtons are no doubt extremely proud of their daughter, who is composing another great season for the Sailors. She also has over a 4.0 grade-point average at Harbor but seems to be doing even better as a person.
"Everyone has their bad days and can say stuff they don't mean," Cleo Harrington said. "I'm not going to claim to be perfect and always positive, but I try to keep a pretty positive outlook. Some people choose to see negative things in people and situations, and other people just try to see the best. That's what I try to do.
"I'm trying to carry that same pattern we had last season into this season. I think we're all trying to just keep a positive attitude when things aren't going our way."
Last year the Sailors were underdogs much of the year, but ended on a 16-match winning streak and didn't lose after the Santa Barbara TOC. With their goalie heating up, they are gaining momentum as they try to defend their CIF title.
They know that Harrington will keep working hard, and do it with a smile.
Born: Feb. 29, 1996
Hometown: Costa Mesa
Sport: Water polo
Coach: Bill Barnett
Favorite food: Mexican food
Favorite movie: "Elf"
Favorite athletic moment: Winning the CIF Southern Section Division 1 title last year.
Week in review: Harrington, a junior goalkeeper, had 47 total saves in four games at the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions, helping Newport Harbor finish second place.
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