No. 1 Tologs face stiff test

GLENDALE — In a season marked by uncharted territory, it is a familiar opponent that stands in front of the Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy soccer team.

With a season full of first-time highlights, the Tologs are looking to advance to the quarterfinal round of the postseason for only the second time in program history, but standing in their way is Saugus, as the host Centurions welcome Sacred Heart for a CIF Southern Section Division II second-round match at 3 p.m. today.

It is the same Saugus squad that defeated Sacred Heart, 3-1, on Dec. 6.

With nearly three months of time in between that match and this one, though, it’s safe to say neither team looks quite the same as it did that day at Westlake High.

“We’ve grown over the span of that three months, as I’m sure they have,” said Sacred Heart co-Coach Frank Pace, whose team nabbed its first-ever No. 1 ranking this year and carried it into a top seed for the tournament, while winning its first-ever league title. “What’s different since the first game is, where we were searching for our identity then, we have one now.”

Many will identify the Tologs (16-4-4) as the tournament’s top seed, but Pace still believes they are the underdogs.

“We’re the No. 1 seed, but we’re not favored out there,” said Pace, who knows his team can’t and won’t take the Centurions (16-3-3) lightly. “We know we’re playing a really good team. We can’t underestimate a team that already beat us 3-1.”

How much the Tologs have changed since losing their second game of the year to the Centurions is indicative enough by the score.

Only on five occasions since that game has Sacred Heart relinquished two goals in a game, with Saugus’ three-goal output still serving as the most scored this year against the Tologs’ stalwart defense, anchored by Pip Harragin and keyed by Natalie Zeeni and Alexa Montgomery.

“Now, we have our team chemistry going, we know how we all play,” said Harrigan of how the team’s changed, before adding that the key to a win will likely be a better defensive showing than in the prior meeting. “I think, overall, we just have to play better defense.”

Saugus, which will also looks to make history as it’s never advanced past the second round of the playoffs, also possesses a stingy defense, having allowed just two goals in its last 10 matches. One of those goals came in a 1-0 loss to Canyon Country Canyon, which tied Valencia for the Foothill League title, pushing Saugus to third place, just two points behind a title.

“They’ve got a solid defense,” said Pace, who also pointed out the likes of senior Erin Ortega and junior Jamie Molacek, who, along with senior Shannon Suarez, are NCAA Division I signees who’ve made the Centurions’ offense a dangerous one.

Just how dangerous was shown in their first-round annihilation of Highland, the Golden League’s second-place finisher. Saugus won, 8-1, in what was arguably the division’s most impressive first-round win. Facing a Beckman squad that was tougher than they thought an opening-round opponent would be, the Tologs fought for a 2-0 victory on Thursday that might very well have been a blessing in disguise.

“We had lost our competitive edge a little bit. I think we got it back on Thursday because our opponent pushed us to the limit,” Pace said. “It got us back to where we were and where we need to be.”

Where it had been was off to a 7-1 league start filled with shutouts and an early grasp of an outright title. But with the title clinched, the Tologs had to rally for consecutive ties against Louisville and Sherman Oaks Notre Dame to end the regular season. Those lackluster performances look to be out of the Tologs’ system now, though.

“It was kind of a wake-up call for us,” said Tologs midfielder Sinead Fleming, who, along with fellow senior Izzy Johnson and freshmen Breena Koemans and Katie Johnson have keyed the Tologs’ offense.

Added Harrigan: “I think we’ve rekindled our spirit a little bit. ...We definitely have our focus back.”

Today’s winner will face either Crescenta Valley or South Hills on Thursday at a site to be determined.

Right now, Sacred Heart’s only focus is moving on and making sure, more than anything, that today’s result is different than the first time it played Saugus.

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