LA CRESCENTA — There were plot lines aplenty as the Crescenta Valley High boys’ water polo team, the three-time reigning Pacific League champion, began defense of its league crown against visiting Burbank on Tuesday afternoon.
A season removed from a CIF Southern Section Division V semifinal appearance, the Falcons found themselves reeling from graduations and entering league with an overall record far below .500.
Just four days removed from first-year Burbank Coach Adam Wright stepping down from the Bulldogs helm, Burbank found itself with its third coach in less than a year leading an undefeated squad into league with aspirations of defeating the Falcons for the first time in program history.
All the subplots came down to a Crescenta Valley game of keep-away as the clock ran down and a Burbank prayer with 1.5 seconds left that went unanswered, as a Bulldogs rally came a goal short and the Falcons began their latest title defense with a dramatic 14-13 victory.
“We saw it as an opportunity to show ourselves to the rest of the league to say we’re here and we’re ready to play,” said Falcons goalie Manny Martinez, who had 19 saves, including three point-blank stops in the second half. “Burbank was a serious step.”
Burbank (13-1), which came in with two nonleague tournament victories to its credit, was under the guidance of James Berman, the team’s interim and junior varsity coach, and rallied from an 8-4 halftime deficit to cut the score to its final tally when Bulldog Zach Card scored with 30 seconds left. On the ensuing possession, the Falcons ran the clock down before a last-second shot was saved by Bulldogs goalie Derek Baer.
“The key was to start controlling the ball,” said Falcons Coach Jan Sakonju, whose team ran down the shot clock on each of its final three possessions.
After a Berman timeout, Baer set up at mid-pool after the referee gave him the ball. The clock was started and the horn blew before Baer could do anything, resulting in a hearty roar from the Falcons fans. But it was premature as the official had never whistled play to resume. When he finally did, Baer got off a pass, but a shot couldn’t be taken before the final horn signaled an end to the game.
“It was a nailbiter and a little closer than we thought it would be,” Martinez said, “but we pulled out a win.”
The win improved the Falcons to 4-10, while the Bulldogs fell to 13-1, despite a resounding second-half turnaround in which they outscored CV, 5-4, in the third quarter and 4-2 in the final period.
“The circumstances were not the best. My longtime friend and coach, Adam Wright, went on to bigger and better things. He got an opportunity he couldn’t turn down. … It’s just been a whirlwind,” said Berman, who also still coaches the JV team, of the program’s last few days.
Nonetheless, the former Bulldogs player was able to rally the team for a second-half comeback.
“First half, we were doing a lot of individual water polo, which is what I warned them about,” Berman said. “It’s apples and oranges when you go from six guys playing as individuals to six guys playing as a team.”
Burbank posted a 1-0 lead at the 6:25 mark of the first period off a Kevin Miller goal, but it was the only time the Bulldogs would hold a lead, as CV got three straight goals from Jonny Malmrose, Brian Dertli — who had a match-high six goals — and Yusef Trad. The first half continued with plenty of signs that CV could turn the match into a blowout, as it registered steal after steal, while Martinez made 12 first-half saves.
“I think in the first half, our guys were taking a few more chances double-teaming, where in the second half, for some reason, it was a lot more man coverage,” Sakonju said.
Burbank wasted no time in the second half in changing the tide, as Card scored at the 6:11 mark and Daniel Gonzalez followed 19 seconds later with a tally that brought the score to 8-6 and turned the match into a see-saw affair that wouldn’t relent.
“I feel like this was a very winnable game,” Berman said.
Off a pass from Antonio Camarillo, Dertli scored what would hold up as the game-winner for the Falcons with 2:34 remaining. Dertli proved clutch on more than one occasion for the Falcons, scoring their final three goals. Crescenta Valley got two goals apiece from Trad and Alex Lee and single tallies from Leo Rostamian, Nate Fernandez, Malmrose and Griffin Harting.
Burbank was led by Card’s five goals, with Gonzalez aiding mightily in the comeback, as all four of his goals came in the second half. Miller had two goals and Sam Akopian and Dante Nazarian had single tallies.
While it was only the first game of the Pacific League slate, it’s clear that things are rapidly changing in the league and, first game or not, it was an important one at that.
“With Hoover and Glendale having very good teams this year,” said Sakonju, whose team has already lost to Glendale in tournament play, “that struggle for not being the fourth seed is a big thing.”