BURBANK — Down three goals early in the first quarter against second-seeded La Serna High, Burbank’s boys’ water polo team looked like it was on track to get blown out rather than pull off an upset.
But the underdogs rallied right back.
The hopes of an upset carried on through the midway point of the third period, as the Bulldogs were down by just one, but a three-goal La Serna run proved to be the difference in sending the No. 2 seed ahead to the semifinals and Burbank to its season’s conclusion after a 14-10 loss on Saturday morning in the CIF Southern Section Division V quarterfinals at Burbank High.
“It was an exciting game, from start to half,” said first-year Burbank Coach Kristina Garcia, whose squad finished at 14-8, which included a second-place Pacific League finish. “The first half was phenomenal. They wanted this win so badly and it showed in the first half.”
The problem was the second half, as La Serna, led by freshman Mitchell Embrey’s match-high seven goals, began to get separation.
“[Burbank] came out very strong, I wasn’t expecting it,” said Embrey, who scored just 11 seconds into the third quarter for a 7-6 lead, which started a stanza that saw the Lancers outscore the Bulldogs, 4-1. “We started to pull away in the third quarter and that’s when we knew we had it.
“Once we started scoring a few goals, you could see they were starting to get down.”
Burbank, which rallied to tie the match at 4 at first quarter’s end and then again at 6 at halftime, was down, 10-7, late in the fourth.
Following a goal by Zack Card, who led Burbank with five goals and four steals, the Bulldogs drew within two goals, but that was as close as the match would get, as the Lancers scored three goals, two from Pembry, to grow their lead to 13-8 — the largest of the game.
“By that time, they had all the momentum,” Card said.
Card was held to two goals in the second half, as Burbank was outscored, 8-4.
Embrey said La Serna (22-7), which will face Pasadena Poly in Wednesday’s semifinal round, made a few small adjustments, including putting Matthew Skings on Card.
“He did a lot better against me,” Card said. “They were just playing a lot stronger.”
Card was hardly shut down, but perhaps the Lancers’ biggest defensive stop came against Bulldogs Dante Nazarian and Shane Pentkowski, who for much of the season have been their team’s second- and third-leading scorers. They combined for just one goal and three assists when Nazarian scored off a Pentkowski pass, but it didn’t come until just 3:11 was left in the game, bringing the score to 13-9.
“[Our offense] played compact, which allowed La Serna [to play] awesome defense,” said Garcia, adding that she wanted her team to use the whole pool and spread its offense more. “It’s not even awesome defense, it’s [us] making it easy for them. That’s why our strongest shooters were shut out.”
In contrast, La Serna feasted on counter-attacks, with big passes to often wide-open scorers, the biggest example coming when Grant Marcy, who had three goals, had nobody within five meters or more around him when he scored with 3:47 to go in the third.
“We lacked on defense,” Garcia said. “We gave them three or four points because people didn’t swim down to make sure nobody was open. That’s what really hurt us.”
La Serna led throughout, taking a 3-0 lead with 2:36 left in the opening period, but Burbank fired back when Card scored off a Nazarian pass 27 seconds later. Sean Savoy followed with a floater off a counter-attack with 1:17 to go and Card dazzled the home crowd with 52 seconds left when he brought the ball up, but swam with it under his body. He looked back to the goalie before coming up with a skip shot from the perimeter that tied the match.
La Serna scored shortly thereafter to go back ahead, but Savoy, who also had three steals, scored again to tie it with nine seconds left off a Pentkowski assist.
More histrionics followed in the second period when Card scored on a rebound with just 20 seconds to go to tie it back up at 6. Earlier in the period, Patrick Vertani scored a goal that was deflected by a Lancers defender and then went off the hand of the goalie and in. It was a score that looked as if things were going Burbank’s way.
But at the end of the day, they were not.
“Honestly, that was the best game we ever played,” Card said.
Still, the standout senior, one of five senior starts and a co-captain along with Savoy, was conflicted as to how successful the season was.
“I’m disappointed. I think we could’ve gone farther,” Card said. “Sometimes things didn’t click. I think we’re just a really emotional team and that could be a problem.
“I’m really proud, too.”
Garcia called her first season at the helm “a learning experience,” as she said she implemented her style, brimming with discipline that, “I know the boys hate,” but is confident the program, which had been in a state of flux with four coaches over the last three seasons, is headed in the right direction after advancing to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2006.
“I don’t think anyone knew we’d get this far. I think people doubted us getting second [in league],” said Garcia, who guided Burbank to its best league finish since its first year in the Pacific in 2006. “I think for everyone it just shows for this program where it’s headed.”