WALNUT — For about two minutes of Wednesday night's CIF Southern Section Division V semifinal match, it looked like the Crescenta Valley High boys' water polo team might just be up for a comeback as improbable as the nearly 20 minutes of offensive futility that preceded it.
Robbie Ruzicka and Alan Dearman's consecutive goals within a one-minute span near the end of the third period cut the Falcons' deficit in half and gave them a chance to put their worst game of the season behind them and try to extend their rally against Pasadena Poly into the fourth quarter.
But the fourth-quarter magic never came, as the fourth-seeded Panthers simply reasserted the defensive dominance they had displayed the entire match and finished what they started with a 6-2 win at Mount San Antonio College to advance to Saturday's final and hand top-seeded Crescenta Valley its second semifinal loss in as many seasons.
"The biggest problem was execution," Crescenta Valley Coach Jan Sakonju said. "We wrote out exactly what Poly was going to do today. We discussed it as a staff, we've talked about it since Friday evening. We had a game plan, we went away from it, guys were making mental errors, taking the shots that we didn't want to take.
"We failed to execute exactly what we wanted to do. In a semifinal game like this when the pressure's on, sometimes weird things happen."
Suffice to say, some weird things began to happen to CV from the get-go, as the Falcons looked out of sync, off their game and unable to penetrate Poly's defense, resulting in being put in the entirely unfamiliar situation of struggling to get on the scoreboard late into the game.
The Falcons (25-5) had their bread and butter counter-attack neutralized early by Poly (22-3), and with it slowly went their half-court confidence and defensive swagger.
"It just wasn't our day," Falcons junior Louis Wojciechowski said. "We just came out flat and after the first quarter to not score is kind of a bummer.
"We couldn't connect with each other, we couldn't do anything."
Surprising as it was to see the Falcons get shut out in not one, but two quarters to open a match, particularly against a team it had already beaten twice this year, the game was far from lost at halftime, as the Panthers had also struggled to convert from the field in the first half, leading by a precarious 2-0 advantage.
Goalkeeper Rane Colvin and the Crescenta Valley defense took their own shutout deep into the second quarter, with the Panthers taking a 1-0 lead on a Chris McWilliams goal on a man-advantage with 2:28 left in the first half. They would bolster it to 2-0 on a Henry Pray tally less than a minute later and, as difficult as the Panthers had made it on the Falcons' offense, the two-goal halftime lead seemed like 10-0.
As Poly's offense further came alive with goals by Pray and Graham Nesbit in the first half of the third period for a 4-0 lead, Crescenta Valley clearly began to press during its own possessions. The Falcons got just two of their eight third-quarter shots on goal, settling for long looks against the shot clock and often missing the cage altogether.
As bad as things had gone, it only took two possessions for the Falcons to get right back in striking distance.
Jack Snyder found Robbie Ruzicka free on a six-on-five to get the Falcons on the board with 2:05 left in the third quarter and Dearman took an open shot of his own, also on a man-advantage, with 1:04 remaining to pull within 4-2.
The momentum swung even more dramatically when the Panthers were hit with their third straight exclusion moments later with Crescenta Valley finally getting free on a counter-attack.
"They're the No.1 team in the division and when they got those two six-on-five goals, you could kind of sense that they were starting to get their momentum," Poly Coach Ryan Katsuyama said. "But then we just took it away early in that fourth quarter and were able to hold on."
But a chance to draw within one going into the fourth was scuttled by a fumbled pass on the wing and the Falcons ended up with a contested attempt by Snyder that missed the mark.
The fourth quarter was all Poly, with McWilliams and Pray scoring inside the first three minutes to bring the lead back up to four.
Crescenta Valley advanced to the semifinals for the third straight year – the Falcons won a Division VI title in 2008 – after claiming their third straight Pacific League crown. The loss marked the end of stellar prep career for several seniors, including Dearman and Colvin, who were both reigning All-CIF selections.
"They just came out stronger than we did," Dearman said. "They stopped and stopped our rush and that was it."