CORONA — Throughout the perfect run of the La Cañada High girls’ soccer team this season, perhaps the most overlooked aspect of the squad’s success was its defense.
Certainly, the numbers were difficult to ignore.
A unit that lacked glamour made up that for that deficiency in grit en route to a 22-0-1 record heading into Saturday’s CIF Southern Section Division V championships at Corona High versus upstart St. Margaret’s.
Of the Spartans’ 22 victories, 15 came via shutouts, while the team allowed a total of 10 goals this season.
On Saturday morning, those figures skewed ever so slightly, just not in favor of the Rio Hondo League-champion Spartans, as the squad surrendered an overtime penalty-kick goal in falling, 1-0, in the team’s first-ever visit to a championship game.
“Its’ been a really amazing defense all year,” Spartans junior fullback Simone Weinstein said. “I feel like we all do it for each other. The defense is really connected and I really don’t know what went wrong in this game. I think we should have definitely won.”
What perhaps wasn’t talked about as much was the defense’s ability to also help out its offense.
In certain matches this season, the Spartans defense proved to be a security blanket, providing trust when the offense started slow, much like in Saturday’s game.
Versus Hemet in Tuesday’s divisional semifinal, the Spartans were outshot, 6-2, before rallying in the second half behind scores from Megan Decker and Katherine Sheehy to take control and ultimately win, 2-0.
A day earlier, the Spartans fell behind, 1-0, to host Sage Hill before the offense broke through and eventually helped pull out a 1-1 (7-6) victory by penalty kicks.
“We knew this year that we’d really be able to rely on our defense,” Sheehy said. “When we’ve struggled in games to get the offense going, kind of like today, we’ve known that our defense was going to keep us in it until we figured out what changes needed to be made.
“We knew that we would eventually find a way to score and that was a great comfort.”
On Saturday, the Spartans defense weathered a 6-4 shots-against ratio in the first half in the hopes the offense would find the back of the opponent’s net.
To its credit, the Spartans offense did put together a much stronger attack in the second half, as the squad attempted nine shots to just two for the Tartans (12-10-6), the Academy League third-place finisher.
In fact, it was solid defense in the 53rd minute from St. Margaret’s freshman goalie Hillary Beall, who both collided with Decker and stole a pass. Again, Beall showed off goalkeeping skill in the 69th minute when she dove to tap away a potential game-winning score from forward Cassy Quiring.
As the shots continued to pile up for the Spartans, it seemed like a matter of time before third-seeded La Cañada would smash through the stalemate.
“I really thought we were going to score,” Quiring said. “We kept getting close, but we couldn’t get it in.”
While La Cañada’s offense continued to battle to score, its defense also turned away some scoring chances from St. Margaret’s, including a counter-attack shot from Madison Beach in the 72nd minute that preceded another shot on goal a minute earlier from Sarah Gencarella.
One of the bigger questions for the Spartans heading into this season was who would play in goal.
Sophomore transfer Kaitlyn Corral answered the call again Saturday as she has for most of the season, finishing with nine saves.
“I think it was difficult coming from another team and coming in and taking on the role of the keeper who was going to make a difference for them,” Corral said. “But I kept a positive attitude and they were real welcoming. I thought as long as I kept training hard ... as long as we trusted each other, we’d work through it.
“Unfortunately, it was a penalty kick.”
La Cañada’s game-winning goal never materialized as the Spartans eventually surrendered a penalty-kick goal to Tartans senior Alexa Barbaresi in the 98th minute after a heart-breaking handball was called in the crease a minute earlier.
Shutout No. 16 and title No. 1 were instead replaced by loss No. 1 in a season that came close to perfection.
“I don’t think their team had an offense against us,” La Cañada Coach Louie Bilowitz said. “There was nothing there. I thought we were eventually going to score.”