Thrilling win over defending state champ lifts NHS to first title in two years

With a young but talented team in the field and a veteran goalie in the net, Newberg girls water polo coach Cari Blanchard has been trying to build her players' confidence in preparation for big matchups.

The Tigers had one of those opportunities in facing defending 6A state champion West Albany in the final of their own tournament Saturday at the Chehalem Aquatic Center. SETH GORDON - Nikki Rubottom defends a Reynolds player during Newberg's 12-6 win over the Raiders Friday in the opening game of the Tigers' own tournament. Newberg went 4-0 to win the event.

Unfortunately, it took Newberg a couple of quarters to rise to the occasion and show that belief in themselves, as the team found itself trailing 6-3 entering the fourth quarter.

The Tigers began to play better in the third, then got on a roll in the final six minutes, outscoring the Bulldogs 5-1 for the quarter, with Stella Byles netting the winning goal with 90 seconds to play.

"I wasn't sure if mentally they could stay in it, so we had a little talk and told them they had to decide mentally what they were going to do and stay in it," Blanchard said of her halftime discussion with the team. "From there, they pushed, play got a lot better and by the fourth quarter, I thought they were playing really solid."

MacKenzie Russell led Newberg with three goals and five steals, with Jordan Trantham, Hailey Day and Byles scoring two goals apiece. Trantham and Byles also registered three steals apiece in the win.

"My philosophy is that the glory is never in the goal," Blanchard said. "It's in the steal, the great defense, the great pass that gives that person the opportunity to score."

Grace Kavanagh has been a steadying force for the team all season and played well in goal to keep the Tigers close enough to rally for the win.

That will be crucial as the season goes on, as the field players learn to assert themselves more. Saturday's second half performance was an important step in that direction.

"We're teaching them to own their abilities," Blanchard said. "They're talented and strong players, so when they're in a game with a team like Albany, which did win state, that doesn't mean they're not as good or better. I think it clicked for them in the third and fourth quarter and they just kept on digging. They started to execute a bit more. I saw the intensity increase quite a bit. They just fought back a little bit harder."

The win was also Newberg's 10th in a row to start the season, as the Tigers opened the tournament Friday with a 12-6 victory over Reynolds before slamming Summit 12-3 and dunking Ashland 12-2 to move into the title match versus West Albany.

"It's been two years since we've won our home tournament, so that was exciting for the girls," Blanchard said. "On the other side, it was exciting to continue our winning streak. I thought they played really well overall.

Newberg added a 15-6 win over Tigard Monday night, getting five goals and one assist from Russell. Byles added four goals and Day also had a strong performance, notching three goals and five assists.

The Tigers will host Lake Oswego at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday before facing another strong challenge Saturday at the Metro Tournament at Mount Hood Community College.

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