Midway through the first quarter of Wednesday's CIF Southern Section Division 3 semifinal game between Laguna Beach and Mira Costa, Laguna Coach Ethan Damato shouted some stern advice at his Breakers.
"Play offense!," he screamed toward the water.
Damato had good reason to deliver such a wake-up call.
He also had good reason to settle down over the next three quarters, thanks to his defense.
Top-ranked Laguna overcame a stagnant start at the Wm. Woollett Jr. Aquatic Center in Irvine to conjure up just enough offense but rode rode a dominating defensive performance to score a 5-2 victory over fifth-ranked Mira Costa.
It was the lowest outcome in victory - and points in a win - for Laguna this year.
Orange Coast League champion Laguna moves on to Saturday's division final where the Breakers will face second-ranked Damien of La Verne.
Damien defeated Palos Verdes, 11-9, in the division's first semifinal game Wednesday.
The Breakers (26-6) were making their third-straight semifinals appearance but recorded their first victory in the final four, all under Damato.
Laguna is in a division final for the first time since 1996 , "my first year of school at Laguna," Damato said, and only third time - the first appearance was in 1974 - in program history.
"You know, we lost two years in a row in the semifinals and we came out a little tentative today," Damato explained. "I was yelling because we weren't moving around on offense. We were waiting for things to happen. I even had a big talk with our guys before we started the second quarter.
"We came to life in the second quarter and never looked back. That was great to see. And our big man, Tyler (Mancuso), came ready to play today."
Tyler Mancuso scored three-straight goals in the second quarter that allowed Laguna to wipe out a 1-0 deficit. Mira Costa had taken a 1-0 lead just 36 seconds into the game on a shot by attacker Julian Monk. But from that point on, the Mustangs, the second-place team from the Bay League who finished the year 22-9, wouldn't score again on a skip shot by Trevor Tarte with Laguna in a man disadvantage with 58 seconds left to play.
To say the Laguna defense was outstanding would be an understatement.
To say that Breakers goalie Erik Henrikson turned in an absolute stellar performance in the cage, would be fitting.
Time and again, and on a few occasions where Mira Costa enjoyed a man advantage, the senior frustrated the Mustangs with big block after big block.
"The last two years in the semifinals, I went into those games thinking too much and got into my head," said Henrikson who registered 15 saves. "This time, I just tried to relax a little, and it worked. I also got a pep talk from coach (Damato) before the game and that helped me get into a zone.
"After they scored that first goal, I told myself, 'that's the last one.'"
Monk's goal at the 6:24 mark of the first quarter would be the only goal scored by the Mustangs over the next 26:26 of the match.
"Defensively, we were outstanding and Erik was phenomenal," Damato said.
"We didn't want our guys to one-on-one with Miller, because he's such a great player," Damato said of Mustangs utility player, Jake Miller, who was held scoreless. "We did a nice job of taking him out of the game."
Laguna drew even with 5:34 left in the second quarter when Mancuso, double-teamed by Monk and Charlie Manclark, drilled a sideways shot into the net. Henrikson then blocked a shot by Tarte on Mira Costa's next trip down pool and 20 seconds later, Spencer Dodson fed Mancuso for the go ahead goal.
Later in the quarter, Henrikson came up with another big block that led to Dodson setting up Mancuso for his third goal of the quarter.
Laguna led, 3-1, at the half.
"We were sluggish and slow in the first quarter but we got fired up for the second quarter," Mancuso said, referring to Damato's pep talk. "I don't think they (Mira Costa) weren't ready for me. They were concerned with Nolan (McConnell) and Spencer, and I was pretty much left open."
Neither team was able to score in the third quarter, although both had scoring opportunities. Near the end of the quarter, the Laguna defense came up big in three sequences.
First, the Breakers' Samer Alkateb was called for a foul and Miller was awarded a penalty shot. He slung a hard, low shot toward the goal but Henrikson came up with a great save. After a steal by Mira Costa's Joe Siltanen, the Laguna defense smothered the Mustangs who had to give up the ball when the shot clock expired. The Breakers capped their big defensive stance in the final minute of the quarter when Dodson and McConnell drew back-to-back exclusions. With Dodson out, a shot by Miller clanged off the crossbar but Tarte tracked down the loose ball to allow Mira Costa to maintain possession. With Dodson back in play, McConnell drew an exclusion but Henrikson once again stymied the Mustangs when he blocked Siltanen's shot with five seconds left.
With Monk drawing an exclusion early in the fourth quarter, Laguna used the man advantage to take its lead to 4-1 on Dodson's first goal of the game. Monk drew a red card after the score and eventually was led off the pool deck and sat among the Mira Costa crowd.
Henrikson blocked Miller again with 3:23 remaining and McConnell scored at the other end of the pool when his shot went off the crossbar and tricked into the net for a 5-1 advantage.
Laguna and Damien will play a rubber match Saturday, this one having bigger implications - a CIF championship - than the first two meetings between the teams this year.
The Spartans, champions of the Sierra League, scored a 16-15 home pool victory over Laguna on Oct. 22. A week later, the Breakers got even by scoring a 9-8 win in the championship game of the Hank Vallenkamp tournament at Servite.
"We need to play a little bit better than we did today and we need to execute better," Damato said of Saturday's showdown. "And I think we will. The kids are ready."