CORONA DEL MAR — Nobody ever said the road to a title would be easy, even if you're the top seed and undefeated.
There was the Corona del Mar High boys' lacrosse team Thursday evening, down a goal at halftime to visiting No. 8 seed Huntington Beach. Coach G.W. Mix said after the game that he couldn't remember the last time his Sea Kings had been down at the half.
But Corona del Mar never forgot what it was playing for. Senior captain Michael Keasey said as much after the Sea Kings dominated the second half to secure a 10-6 victory in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Lacrosse Southern Section South Division playoffs.
"The seniors just kind of took over in the locker room," Keasey said of halftime. "We said that this was the last 24 minutes that we'll play on this field for the rest of our lives. We just kind of promised each other we'd go as hard as we could the entire second half.
"The leadership on our team goes well beyond the captains. A lot of the football guys, after winning their CIF championship, have really taken it upon themselves to come out and be leaders through their actions ... Each and every one of the seniors has taken it upon themselves to work as hard as they can and set an example. It's the most hard-working, unselfish group of seniors that we've ever had."
Corona del Mar (21-0) will play defending champion Foothill, the No. 4 seed, in the semifinals Saturday at 5 p.m. at Aliso Niguel High. The Knights outlasted Newport Harbor, 6-4, in another quarterfinal. The Sea Kings and Knights have not played this season.
Few games are easy at this point. The visiting Oilers (9-8) proved they could hang with CdM in the first half. They took a 5-4 lead into halftime after David Mastro executed a sweet spin move, dishing the ball to Taylor Refice for a goal with 3:56 left in the second quarter. Mastro already had a goal and three assists at the break.
Huntington Beach, which had lost to CdM, 12-4, at home earlier in the season, was doing more than just making it a game.
"We felt like the first half wasn't us," Mix said. "We talked about that at halftime, that they weren't really beating us because that wasn't us. We needed to do what we do. I think we did a very good job coming out in the second half and playing far more in character than we did in the first half. And [Huntington Beach] played well. They're a nice team, and they played hard.
"[In the second half] I thought we played with more intensity, more patience, more purpose on offense. We stopped trying to be the guy that makes the next big play, and everybody just played. That was a big part of it for us."
It helped that CdM seemingly played much of the second half a man up. That's how the Sea Kings retook the lead, with a man-up goal from Keasey (three goals, three assists). Less than 30 seconds later, Huntington Beach was again a man down. This time CdM junior Jack Ortlieb (three goals and two assists) did the honors, giving the Sea Kings a 6-5 lead less than five minutes into the third quarter.
Junior Chris Von Der Ahe scored with 7:30 left in the game, giving CdM a two-goal advantage. Then, after an Oilers slashing penalty, Keasey fed Ortlieb for another man-up goal to push the lead to 8-5 with 4:55 remaining.
Huntington Beach Coach Brian Dunn was incredulous about some of the penalties called against his team, only slightly less so after the game.
"Unfortunately, there's nothing you can do about the refs," Dunn said. "You can only play the game. Sometimes it feels like you're playing against 13 instead of 10, but the thing I keep telling my kids is that we've to stay focused ... I think that even when it got heated and we continued to get man-down calls over and over and over again, the guys continued to stay in the game and stay focused."
It wasn't enough for the Oilers, who were led in scoring by Refice and Grant Lowman with two goals each.
Senior Hunter Molnar added two goals and an assist, senior Jack Gorab also scored and Casey Mix had an assist for the Sea Kings, who controlled possession in the second half. Senior goalie Michael Ortlieb made just two of his seven saves after halftime. Senior Taylor Epp and freshman Hugh Crance each had three groundballs for the Pacific Coast League champions, ranked No. 5 in the state by laxpower.com, and the defense of some of those "football guys" like seniors Erik Fisher and Matt English was invaluable.
Mix, whose team also was pushed in a 13-10 opening-round win over Servite, said he liked the way CdM stepped up late Thursday to secure the win.
"It was interesting to see how we responded," Mix said. "We responded the way a coach would want his team to respond to a challenge like that, so I was proud of them."