NORTHEAST GLENDALE — The approximately 45 minutes for which the Flintridge Prep girls' soccer team's playoff opener remained tied made Wednesday's CIF Southern Section Division III match with visiting Diamond Bar look closer than it really ever was.
The difference between the Rebels and the Brahmas was clear as day in the second half, where Prep dominated play and pulled away for a 3-1 victory behind goals by Alina Okamoto and Arielle Baptiste.
"It was really nerve-wracking at the beginning, but it's just like a big weight off our shoulders, for sure," said Baptiste, who also scored the first goal of the match in the first half.
After a lengthy injury delay, which ended with Diamond Bar's Michelle Stelzriede being taken away in an ambulance after apparently hurting her neck in a collision just five minutes into the second half, Prep took the lead within four minutes of the resumption of play and assumed firm control of the match. The Rebels (17-3-2) denied the Brahmas (14-8-1) any kind of decent scoring opportunity in the second half and had some good chances to actually increase their lead down the stretch.
"We attacked and defended, I thought, really well," Prep Coach Esteban Chavez said. "I don't want to say dominate, but we really took control and had an exclamation mark at the end.
"I'm happy how they came out playing. Typically, they get really nervous, it's a playoff game at home with their crowd, but they came out strong."
The Prep League-champion Rebels scored first in the seventh minute when Brooke Elby bounced a 10-yard shot off the right post and straight to Baptiste, who nudged in the rebound. The lead only lasted about 10 minutes, though, as Diamond Bar's Bianca Balassi scored on a backwards header off a corner kick from Tatum Lockett in the 17th minute.
The rest of the half was fairly even, although the Rebels' Connell Studenmund did have a pair of shots on goal stopped and Prep goalkeeper Casey Cousineau made a fantastic jumping save to poke a high shot up and just over the crossbar in the 21st minute.
Things came to a screeching halt at the onset of the second half when play was halted
"That was a very long break and we all started getting cold," Baptiste said. "We just got a few balls out and started running around and warming up and I think that really helped us out in starting the second half really strong."
From the central midfield, Baptiste weaved a pass through traffic to Okamoto on the left wing. Okamoto dribbled to her spot, stopped short to lose her mark and stuck one just inside the left post.
Just 10 minutes later, Studenmund sent a cross from tight in the right corner to Baptiste in the middle of the penalty box for a 3-1 lead.
Prep appeared to have further blown the game open in the 68th minute when Elby's 30-yard free kick ricocheted off the crossbar and was pushed in by Kaitlyn Kelleher, but offsides was called.
"Really, we had four goals," Chavez said. "That was not an offsides."
Prep, which was eliminated in the first round last year, will now face Cypress, a 2-1 winner over Cerritos, in the second round on Tuesday at a site to be determined.