WALNUT — For a team that made it look easy all year, Wednesday night's CIF Southern Section Division V semifinal loss was hard to believe.
Not so much for the fact that the Falcons lost, 6-2, to a worthy adversary in Pasadena Poly, the division's No. 4 seed, but simply for how completely the top- seeded Falcons were taken out of their element offensively.
Crescenta Valley seldom went more than a few possessions at a time without scoring a goal this season and on Wednesday at Mount San Antonio College was shut out for nearly three whole quarters before scoring with 2:05 left in the third to make it 4-1.
Where was the Falcons' vaunted counter-attack as the Panthers slowed the game to a crawl on Wednesday?
"We left it in Palm Springs," Crescenta Valley Coach Jan Sakonju said in reference to the site of his team's quarterfinal win over Palm Springs on Tuesday.
And what of Crescenta Valley's big offensive guns?
"We had played them before, so we knew what their tendencies were in terms of their driving," Panthers Coach Ryan Katsuyama said. "We knew who their strong players were and it was our job as a team to take away their strengths and force their weaker players to put up the shots."
How the Panthers were able to so completely neutralize a division favorite which had already dispatched them twice in the regular season somewhat defied explanation.But the key would appear to be twofold, with the first element being the brilliant defensive game plan Katsuyama devised to foil the Falcons and how flawlessly his players executed it.
"They kept us off-balance," Falcons hole/set Alan Dearman said. "We were nine meters away from the cage on the outside at all times. We never got within striking distance. It's hard to score when you can't get close to the cage."
On top of that, the motivated Panthers just seemed to feel like it was their time to land a staggering blow in what had been, up until Wednesday, a one-sided playoff rivalry.
"Before this game I've been 0-6 against CV," said Poly standout hole/set Henry Pray, who was a part of the teams that lost to the Falcons in the playoffs each of the last two years and lost 9-6 at Poly on Sept. 21 and again in the Oxnard Tournament on Oct. 16, 8-6. "It's huge. I wouldn't want to beat any other team but CV. We were ready, we came out hard."
And the Panthers put that motivation to work by putting a top priority on harnessing the Falcons' speedy counter and forcing everything to the corners in the half-court set, leaving the Falcons with only harmless lobs and desperation heaves against the clock.
"Poly's got enough game film on us and our players are so familiar with each other, so they knew we had a counter-attack," Sakonju said. "You could see them coming back. They committed offensive players to come back and stop our counter. I think we only had one or two counter-attacks and one sailed over the cage."
The Panthers forced CV into just two-of-25 shooting, shutting out high-scoring weapons such as Louis Wojciechowski and Jack Snyder and holding Dearman to just four shots.
"We were running a new defense we knew CV hadn't seen yet," Pray said. " We ran a drop from the weak side and it really just shut Alan down, which was our game plan. It was the first time we've ever run it and it worked really well."
It's looking more like a true rivalry now, with Poly finally striking back.
Still, mutual respect refreshingly remains the cornerstone of this deepening regional battle.
"They're a really great team," Dearman said. "If you have to lose to anyone, they're great to lose to."