IRVINE — The CIF Southern Section Division 1 boys' water polo playoffs are still about a month away, but it's never too early to start thinking about them.
Perhaps more accurately, it's never too early to start thinking about avoiding Mater Dei in the semifinals.
Newport Harbor took a big step in doing just that late Saturday afternoon at Woollett Aquatics Center. The Sailors defeated Long Beach Wilson, 7-5, in the third-place match of the 20th S&R Sport Southern California water polo tournament.
The Sailors are ranked No. 3 in CIF, and Wilson is No. 4. The rankings should stay that way for now, as Newport Harbor (16-4) notched its second victory over the Bruins this year. The Sailors also won he teams' nonleague meeting, 9-8, on Sept. 10.
"If we lost this one, Wilson has the right to say that they could be in the third position," Newport Harbor Coach Robert Lynn said. "Then I would have to say, 'Well, the head-to-head [nonleague] game counts more.' I don't want to [have to] say that. I want to say that every time we play them, we're going to win. It was big for us to win today. Our guys knew that, and they stepped up."
Corona del Mar finished seventh in the tournament after beating Miramonte, 17-10. Earlier Saturday the Sea Kings (9-7) lost to Los Alamitos, 8-7, in a fifth-place semifinal.
Newport Harbor, the two-time defending tournament champion, couldn't defend its title. The Sailors lost to Atherton Sacred Heart, 9-8, in a tournament semifinal earlier Saturday. It was a reversal of the Santa Barbara tournament last month, when the Sailors edged the Gators by a goal. But Newport showed it could rebound against Wilson.
"That was like a must-win game," said senior lefty Mitchell Mendoza, who tallied two goals, three steals, two field blocks and an assist against Wilson. "It was kind of tough this morning, but I'm glad we bounced back. If you want to play Mater Dei, you want to play them in the biggest game [the Division 1 championship match] when anything can happen."
Newport Harbor never trailed the third-place match, but it was close throughout. The Bruins' Brock Gordon brought his team within a goal on an outside shot with 4:11 left in the game, cutting the Sailors' lead in half to 6-5.
But Newport senior Luca Cupido (three goals and two steals) answered on his team's next possession. He took the quick pass from junior Clay Davison and scored on a sweep shot.
Long Beach Wilson had more chances to get closer, but many of them were stopped by Newport sophomore goalie Joe Ferraro (nine saves). Ferraro played well in place of senior Massimo Navarretta (hip flexor), who sat out the tournament.
"Joe played well and made some big stops," Lynn said. "They had a lot of counterattacks coming at him."
Senior center K.J. Kelley and Jack Mooers also scored against Wilson, and junior center Chad Sheldon had a field block and drew an exclusion. Jake Davis led Wilson with two goals.
"I think we took control of the game at the end," Lynn said. "We probably had some more opportunities, but we stabilized the defense a little bit more, and that gave us the breathing room that we needed. That's what we missed against Sacred Heart — we didn't really stabilize our defense the whole time."
Davison led the Sailors with three goals in the semifinal loss, and Cupido and Mooers each scored twice. Mendoza added a goal for Newport Harbor, one that tied the score at 8-8 with 3:11 left in the contest.
But Sacred Heart's Michael Hamming scored the game-winning goal from about seven meters with 43 seconds left, and Ben Chong got a late steal on the Sailors' next possession. Hamming led the Gators, who are coached by former Newport Harbor Coach Brian Kreutzkamp, with four goals.
CdM, ranked No. 5 in Division 1, ended its tournament with a win. Senior Matt Sherburne scored seven goals in the seventh-place match against Miramonte, while seniors Jay Neiger and Charlie Rodosky added three goals each, as did junior Jack Trush. Senior Wade Munger also scored for CdM, and junior goalie Nigel Bress made nine saves.
The Sea Kings had their chances in the fifth-place semifinal against Los Al. Down 8-6 after three quarters, they pulled within a goal on a strike from Munger. Neither team scored again, and the Griffins crashed at two meters to come up with a steal in the closing seconds.
Sherburne and Ashton Jajonie each scored twice in the loss, and Munger, Rodosky and Trush scored one goal each.
Harvard-Westlake, ranked No. 2 in Division 1, defeated Sacred Heart 15-8 to win the S&R Sport tournament title. The Wolverines have a key match Tuesday at top-ranked Mater Dei.