Some called the Corona del Mar High girls' water polo team the team to beat in CIF Southern Section Division 1 all the way back in December.
Foothill Coach Jeff Colton and Newport Harbor Coach Bill Barnett were among those who used those words at the time. This was true, even though the Sea Kings' senior transfers from Greece, USC signees Stephania and Ioanna Haralabidis, weren't eligible until January.
With all of its pieces together, Corona del Mar (27-4) did have a lot of talent on its team. But Coach Sam Bailey knew that talent alone guaranteed nothing.
"It wasn't going to be the most talented group of athletes who were going to be CIF champs," Bailey said Tuesday. "It was going to be the best team. The most talented group isn't always going to be the best. Look at the Lakers this year, or even when they got Karl Malone and Gary Payton [in 2004 but lost to the underdog Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals]."
Bailey could be very proud of his team after Saturday's Division 1 title match. The Sea Kings defeated rival and defending champion Newport Harbor, 6-5, with a total team effort. In the process, they earned their first title in the top division.
Consider that CdM's top scorer (Stephania Haralabidis), fourth-highest scorer (Ioanna Haralabidis) and fifth-highest scorer (Maddie Musselman) combined for no goals in the title match. Stephania did lead the Sea Kings with three steals. Musselman was positive from the bench, but she missed the last two matches of the playoffs after Bailey said she broke her wrist in a bicycle accident early last week.
Others stepped up on offense. Senior Ally McCormick, who is headed to BYU for swimming, tied a season-high with four goals. Senior co-captain Cassidy Papa (Stanford) also scored on a counterattack. And junior center Marina Coskinas came up with a huge goal from two meters to give CdM a 6-4 advantage in the fourth quarter.
These performances were important. But so was the one from senior Morgan Stewart, who stepped up on both ends of the pool and also as a backup center to Coskinas. And sophomore Eliza Britt, who had played sparingly in big games since the team was short-handed to begin the year, had a big field block in the third quarter to stop a Newport Harbor six-on-five.
CdM senior goalie Erica Weed, the other co-captain, made six saves. One of them, on a fairly close shot in the fourth quarter with the Sailors on a six-on-five, preserved a one-goal lead at the time.
The Sea Kings' defense was stout, allowing just three goals in the final three quarters. And Newport Harbor converted just one of its final six power-play opportunities, after senior Carolyn Smith scored the first one of the game.
CdM definitely had its ups and downs this season. The Sea Kings, who started the year top-ranked in Division 1, failed to make the finals of any of the three in-season tournaments. After his team's quarterfinal loss to Newport in the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions, Bailey said his team looked like "six individuals in the water."
Six weeks later, the opposite was true.
"I think a lot of it has to do with trust," Bailey said. "The more that we worked on things, offensively and defensively, it really helped the girls believe in our team."
CdM went to celebrate after Saturday night's match with a pizza party. And the girls wore their CIF champion T-shirts to school on Monday.
Bailey said he appreciated all of the congratulations he got from the water polo community. Two hugs that he got after the game Saturday night also meant a lot.
One was from U.S. women's national team coach Adam Krikorian, the longtime UCLA men's and women's team coach who won 15 titles with the Bruins as a player or coach. Krikorian was on hand to watch CdM's big win. Bailey is also a UCLA alumnus who was on campus for three national titles as a player. He also was an assistant coach at the school.
The other hug Bailey really enjoyed was from his girlfriend, Nicole. Bailey said he really appreciated her flexibility during the long high school season, when he had to spend a lot of time away from her.
"Her support means more to me than words can express," Bailey said. "It nearly brought me to tears."
One person who wasn't there was former CdM Coach Aaron Chaney, who led the Sea Kings to five CIF titles in nine years before moving back to Hawaii in 2010. Bailey, who was an assistant to Chaney on CdM's 2004 and 2005 Division 2 title teams, said that Chaney is still coaching girls' water polo in Hawaii. He talked to Chaney on the phone before and after the title match. Chaney watched the online stream of the match with his players.
Newport Harbor might have narrowly failed to defend its title, but the future looks very bright for the Sailors. They expect to return three starters in junior goalkeeper Cleo Harrington, junior Christina O'Beck and sophomore Rachel Whitelegge. In addition, there is a lot of younger talent in the program that was on the very talented JV team this year. Newport's JV team won the Costa Mesa varsity tournament for the second straight year, and also finished ninth in the Holiday Cup.
Sophomores like Chanel Schilling, Kate Pipkin, Ellie Reid and goalie Carlee Kapana could make a sizable impact on varsity next year. Kapana played for Team USA in December at the FINA Youth World Championships in Australia. The class being so strong is part of the reason that Barnett may coach for two more years.
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