Out to Prove They Belong
Before Laguna Beach played Edison last week, the girls water polo team was unconcerned about their sixth-place CIF ranking. Or that they were 2-0 after season opening wins over Dana Hills and El Toro. Or even that they were about to play a tough match on the road against an eighth-ranked team. The only thing that matters is that they are a division I team and proud of it.
CIF’s decision to bump the Breakers up from division II before last season was certainly justified, considering Laguna’s four finals appearances over the previous six years, including the 2009 title. Nevertheless, it came as a shock to those who were looking forward to a season that was sure to end with the program’s second D-II championship.
The girls handled their disappointment by opening the season with six straight wins against top teams like Mater Dei, Edison and Santa Barbara before dropping a tough 8-7 decision to Corona del Mar at the Holiday Cup on New Year’s Eve. They followed that loss later the same day with a victory over Foothill to take third place in the prestigious tournament.
By then the water polo crazy southern section had taken notice of the upstart Breakers, who would ride a wave of confidence all the way to CIF semifinals. There, they took Dos Pueblos to sudden death overtime before becoming the 66th straight victim of the country’s best team and eventual CIF champs. “That was definitely our best game all season,” said senior Yoshi Anderson, her voice swelling with pride.
“We didn’t expect to get very far at all,” said senior Melena Masson, “and then to end up in the semis with the number one team in the country was amazing for us.”
“I think we proved to the rest of the division and to ourselves that we can compete with anyone in the country,” said head coach Ethan Damato.
One need only look at last year’s all-CIF rosters to find proof. Of the 39 girls to earn spots on the first, second and third teams, five were Breakers. No other division I team had more than four. And though Laguna fell short of the title, they ended the season ranked first in the county.
But three of the five all-CIF Breakers graduated, including Jessie Holchek, the team’s leading scorer. Also gone is tenacious Jessica Shusko, whose defense often set the tone. Maybe the most glaring loss is goalkeeper Etianne Manetta, who was “probably the best goalie Laguna has ever seen,” Damato said. “Anytime you lose that many great players, it is always tough to replace what they brought to the team,” he added.
The return of Masson and Anderson, the team’s second and third leading scorers last year with 62 and 60 goals respectively, gives the Breakers’ plenty of offensive firepower. Anderson scored six goals in each of Laguna’s first two wins, and could re-write the school record book if she keeps up that pace. “Yoshi is one of the most dynamic offensive players I have ever coached,” said Damato.
Masson will get her share of goals again this year, but her ability to shut down the other team’s best scorer will be her most important contribution. “You can’t have offense without defense,” she said, “so it all kind of starts in defense.”
Anderson echoed her co-captain. “I think defense is going to be kind of the decider.”
Makenzie Fischer, who is 6-feet-tall and plays for the U.S. Cadet National Team, starts at 2-meter offense. She had six goals against Dana Hills. “She is an extremely talented player that gives us an additional scoring threat,” said Damato.
Sophomore Jenna Knott, who is filling in the cage for Manetta, has impressed so far in practice and recorded eight saves against Dana Hills. “She has definitely stepped it up this year,” said Anderson.
A returning quintet of juniors include all-league selection Lexie Del Toro. “Lexie is a great shooter and driver, quick on the counter and an extremely smart player,” said Damato.
Sydney Saxe will play both 2-meter offense and 2-meter defense. “Sydney has good speed, and her ability to post up and defend makes us very deep at those positions,” said Damato.
Mackenzie Baldridge, who was injured much of last year, performed well during the summer and fall seasons. “She is left handed with good speed and will help keep teams honest on her side of the pool, said Damato.
Alia Manetta, who saw a lot of playing time both as a freshman and sophomore, could easily be a starter, but Damato wants to use her experience as a spark coming off the bench. Kate Magnusson should also see a lot of minutes in relief for Damato’s Breakers.
For Laguna to make another run at a CIF title, they will have to be mindful of the three C’s: conditioning, something they desperately need because of their lack of depth; communication, key to effectively running Damato’s attacking, transition-style offense; and commitment; what no champion can ever do without.