When does one stop using adjectives like "young" and "inexperienced" to describe a team?
That time already may have passed for the Corona del Mar High girls' water polo team.
Other CIF Southern Section Division 1 squads better start using words like "contender."
CdM returns just two regular contributors from last year's Division 1 championship team, senior center Marina Coskinas and sophomore utility Maddie Musselman. But the Sea Kings showed their depth to earn a 7-5 victory over rival Newport Harbor on Friday night at CdM in the Battle of the Bay game.
It's the third straight win in the rivalry series by CdM (2-0), ranked No. 5 in Division 1. But this year's victory over the Sailors (3-1), No. 2 in Division 1, was perhaps the most surprising, to everyone except for the Sea Kings and their fans.
First-year CdM Coach Ross Sinclair said Friday's win was just another game. It's a funny thing to say considering Sinclair, who graduated from Newport Harbor in 2003, was coaching against his alma mater. But the really funny thing is, Sinclair and the Sea Kings really seemed to believe it.
Sure, they celebrated and took team pictures after the victory. But they didn't overreact to the victory like a young team might. To CdM, it could be seen as part of a process, which has including an 18-and-under classic division title at last summer's Junior Olympics and a tournament victory at the Foothill Fall Fling in late October.
"For us, it's the process," Sinclair confirmed. "I was really excited that we got to prepare and see what type of players our girls are. I think they're embracing the concept I'm trying to create, becoming students of the game and [having a high] water polo IQ … The team that has the [CIF] ring on their finger at the end of the season, I don't think they look back on Battle of the Bay too much, whether they win or lose that one. For the moment, we're happy, we're going to enjoy it. Then back to the drawing board."
Sinclair has two other Newport Harbor graduates on his coaching staff, Leah Robertson and Kimmy Morrison. And CdM used a Newport Harbor staple, a strong press defense, to wreak havoc on the Sailors in the first half Friday night.
The Sea Kings shut out the Sailors for the first 13-plus minutes of the game, until junior Rachel Whitelegge scored a six-on-five goal with 11 seconds left in the half. By then, the hosts had built a 4-0 lead behind second-quarter goals from Musselman, senior defender Annie Mortimer, Coskinas and junior Eliza Britt.
"We've really been working hard these past two weeks, grinding really hard and pushing ourselves," said the University of Michigan-bound Mortimer. "We want to prove the stereotype of us being an underdog wrong."
CdM sophomore keeper Heidi Ritner also had a stellar game, with 10 saves. The Sea Kings held Newport Harbor to two goals in six power-play situations, though CdM converted just two of eight chances itself.
"They have a lot of people who can be a center, so we knew we had to communicate and know that there's not just one person who's going to set," Mortimer said. "We definitely needed to talk to each other and have awareness of who's driving in to set, or posting up."
Musselman led the defensive effort for CdM with four steals, including two at mid-pool. They weren't exactly what Newport Harbor Coach Bill Barnett wanted to see. His team didn't look comfortable, despite practicing at CdM for the past week as the Sailors' pool is closed for repairs.
"To generate an offense, you have to have good passes," Barnett said. "Good passes lead to good goals, and our passing was terrible, especially in the first half."
The Sailors tried to rally late in the third quarter behind a pair of goals from junior lefty Ellie Reid. She called for the ball on her second shot before lobbing one cross-cage off the post, narrowing Newport's deficit to 4-3 with 22 seconds left in the third quarter.
Newport Harbor, which had leading offensive weapons Christina O'Beck and Kate Pipkin each go scoreless, seemed back in the game. But CdM got a key power-play goal from junior Grace Morgan to extend its lead in the fourth quarter.
The Sailors added a penalty shot by Hawaii-bound senior Heidi Fults, drawn by junior Chanel Schilling, to pull within 5-4 with 5:20 left. But Musselman added a goal from the outside, off a foul, just 15 seconds later.
U.S. women's senior national team Coach Adam Krikorian, who coached Musselman at the Canada Cup earlier this month, watched the Battle of the Bay. He watched her continually make plays.
After Whitelegge's power-play goal again narrowed the deficit to one, Musselman drew an exclusion from center. It led to Britt's power-play goal from the left side with 2:20 to go. Britt was patient on the play, which Sinclair said he was pleased to see as she sometimes rushes it.
The USC-bound Coskinas and Musselman each drew three exclusions for CdM.
Senior Bobbi Hoose was an unsung hero for the Sea Kings with a field block, an assist and a steal.
"She's a little sneaky one," Musselman said of Hoose. "She always tries so hard to make perfect passes."
Whitelegge (three steals) and Reid each scored twice for the Sailors. They got seven first-half saves from Harvard-bound senior Cleo Harrington, and four second-half saves and a steal from junior Carlee Kapana.
Both teams will now prepare for their first tournament of the season, the Holiday Cup on Jan. 3-4. First, the Sailors play at El Toro in a nonleague game Dec. 28.
Corona del Mar could meet some of the other top Division 1 teams, ones the Sea Kings haven't seen yet this young season, at the Holiday Cup.
The upstart Sea Kings won't be scared.
"Ross has pushed us really hard," Musselman said. "He always wants us focused, he doesn't want us goofing off or anything. He always wants us to win, no matter what, and if we don't he'll say we should move on. The next game, we can win it.
"I think we've worked hard enough to earn [our success]. Our team's really good, I think. We play so well together."
"Good" is another adjective that seems to fit CdM just fine.