BURBANK -- After a scoreless first half in its Ralph Brandt Tournament semifinal game against El Camino Real, the Crescenta Valley High soccer team dialed up two long-distance goals to seize control of the match Saturday evening at Memorial Stadium.
“Great strikes, those were world-class shots,” Crescenta Valley Coach Grant Clark said.
Those scores held up, thanks to three equally stellar second-half saves by goalie Josh Cook, and the Falcons defeated the previously unbeaten Conquistadors, 2-0, to advance to the tournament final Monday night at St. Francis.
In the game’s 48th minute, Falcon Erick Trejo was briefly left alone in space in the middle of the field some 30 yards away from the goal. The senior collected himself with his dribble and uncorked a wicked shot that dipped just underneath the crossbar, leaving El Camino Real goalie Luka Joncich helpless to stop it.
“At halftime we just discussed the importance of getting a shot on target, because we didn’t really test the goalie,” Trejo said. “So first chance I get I thought I’d open it up and just see what could happen. I was just as surprised as everyone else when I hit it.”
Less than five minutes later, Falcon Pablo Hernandez followed Trejo’s lead. In the center of the field, once again roughly 30 yards out, Hernandez quickly unleashed a powerful rising shot that flew to the left of Joncich into the back of the net to give Crescenta Valley (7-0-1) the 2-0 advantage it would never yield.
“I saw a whole bunch of space. I saw the goalie come out, so I just decided to put it in,” Hernandez, also a senior, said. “We needed a second goal.”
The two outside goals would not have been enough if not for the play of the Falcon net minder Cook, who in the minute before the Trejo goal came up big. In the game’s 47th minute, Conquistador Maurice Morton received a pass that put him point blank in front of the goalmouth with only Cook to stop him. Morton struck a hard shot, but the Falcons’ senior keeper got his arms up to deflect the ball. Morton got it again and, once again from point-blank distance, shot the ball, only to see Cook repeat his feat and get his arms up to knock the ball away. It came down to James Rincon, who put the ball into the net, but did so from off-sides position, negating the El Camino Real (5-1) goal.
“I just react,” Cook said. “I know my defense will stop any ball they possibly can, so if something gets through, I’m the last line and I just have to support them.”
In the game’s 60th minute, with the Falcons sitting on their two-goal lead, Rincon had another quality chance. He received a pass from Emmanuel Castillo that put him into open space on the right side in deep with no defenders in front of him, but his low shot was turned aside by Cook, who dropped to one knee to make his third spectacular save of the second 40 minutes.
“If I make a great save, even if I miss one, [my team] is still behind me,” Cook, who this season replaced graduated all-CIF keeper Nick Ruiz, said. “My family is always there, my grandparents over in England are always there, but first and foremost my family is my team and my coaches.”
In the first half, El Camino Real dominated possession of the ball, seeking to build numbers and create scoring chances as it advanced en mass. This pressured the Crescenta Valley defense to adjust to the tactic, but it did so, shutting down its City Section opponents when it mattered in the final third of the field. Sweeper back Brian Ju was the key, as he cleaned up any mistakes his teammates made dealing with the Conquistadors’ onslaught.
On the other hand, in the first half, the Falcons looked to use the long ball to spark quick attacks with fewer numbers forward. Despite the difference of approach, in the the end both teams had the same amount of shots before the break.
“I felt like we played the game we wanted to play in the first half,” Clark said. “We wanted to keep pressure on them and see how they reacted because in the tournament, in the games I’d seen, they pretty much handled people however they wanted to play.”
With the win, Crescenta Valley, last year’s CIF Southern Section Division IV champion and the squad currently ranked No. 1 in the most recent Division III poll, advances to play for the Brandt tournament title. The championship game will be played on Monday night beginning at 7 p.m. at St. Francis’ Friedman Field against the winner of Saturday night’s other semifinal between Birmingham and Sylmar.
“We don’t expect anything less than a dogfight coming in,” Clark said of Monday’s final. “I mean, you’re playing for a tournament championship, whatever tournament it is, you’re going to see someone who is worth facing.”