The La Cañada High girls’ soccer team came into Monday’s CIF Southern Section Division 5 quarterfinal playoff match with 20 wins and one tie this season.
All it takes in CIF, though, is one loss to be sent home.
Unseeded Sage Hill pushed No. 3 La Cañada for 100 minutes of play on the pitch, and 10 penalty kicks. But all it took was one well-placed shot by Spartans sophomore Emma Tapp to end the game, as well as the Lightning’s season.
Tapp scored the game-winner on the 10th penalty kick as La Cañada won the shootout, 7-6, after the teams played to a 1-1 tie through regulation and two overtime periods.
La Cañada will play at Hemet in a Division 5 semifinal on Tuesday. It’s another long road trip for the Spartans, but Coach Louie Bilowitz can deal with that.
He is just happy his team survived at Sage Hill, in a game that was rescheduled due to flooding on the Sage Hill field during Friday’s rainstorm. Three days later, the Lightning, making its first CIF quarterfinal appearance since 2006, certainly seemed dangerous.
“Their team was very, very athletic, more athletic and faster than any team we’ve played,” Bilowitz said. “We weren’t used to that. And they never quit. I thought we had pretty much control of the game, but their defense was so fast and good-sized that we couldn’t get enough shots.”
The anchor of that defense was junior goalkeeper Kekai Whitford. She made 16 saves, including three in the shootout, which was back and forth. Senior captain Allie Mowrey scored in the first round, but Brianna Albarian answered for La Cañada.
Neither team scored in the second round, with Whitford recording a block. Sage’s third-round shot was blocked by Spartans goalie Kaitlyn Corral before La Cañada’s Rosie Quezada scored to give the visitors a 2-1 lead. Sage missed again, but Whitford recorded another save to keep her team within one.
After Sage’s Rachael Jaffe scored in the fifth round, La Cañada had a chance to win it with its fifth-round attempt, but Whitford dived to her right to make a huge save.
“I wasn’t keeping track,” Whitford said. “I didn’t know if we were up, I didn’t know if we were down. I was just focused on that next ball, and doing my part.”
From there, the teams kept pace in the next four rounds. Whitford, Tiffany Taylor, Ida Ramezani and Meg Crade scored for Sage Hill, while Katherine Sheehy, Megan Reilly, Cassy Quiring and Ari Aghadjanians answered every time for La Cañada.
But Corral blocked Sage’s 10th-round shot to the right side, setting up Tapp’s decisive goal for the Rio Hondo League champions.
The Lightning (15-6-4) took the loss hard, particularly Whitford. Mowrey gave her Sage volleyball and soccer teammate a big hug, saying, “I am so proud of you,” and, “Don’t apologize.”
There was a lot to be proud of. Sage Hill took the 1-0 halftime lead after sophomore Claire Novotny scored in the 14th minute, heading in the ball past Corral in the box off a free kick from Taylor.
“We’re confident in our play,” said Mowrey, a midfielder who came out in the second half due to cramping but eventually re-entered the game. “We knew that we could hang with them. I think we did that. It could have been anyone’s game ... A lot of our players are really versatile. Coach Mike [Hammond] is always moving us around, and we adapt to that. I expect us to be a really strong team next year, and the next couple of years. We have a lot of sophomores and three freshmen.”
But La Cañada’s Megan Decker scored the equalizer Monday in the 52nd minute. The Lightning pushed hard toward the end of the second half to take the lead back. Novotny and sophomore captain Janis Jin kept serving the ball up to Crade and senior forward Juliette Singarella up top, but Sage Hill was turned away. In the 60th minute, Novotny got a free kick after La Cañada committed a hand-ball 25 yards out, but it whistled just over the net.
Defensively, Sage was stout with Taylor, Jaffe, Ramezani and Jaclyn Gerschultz. All four players are sophomores, which provides plenty of hope for the future for Sage Hill, which finished second in the Academy League to Crean Lutheran by a single point.
“I would say it’s a night and day improvement, the first three or four games until now,” said Hammond, in his first year in charge at Sage. “It’s completely night and day. We’re a solid team, and we can compete against anybody. That’s an undefeated team, and it could have gone either way.”