CHINO HILLS — Even with a complete roster, the Flintridge Prep girls' soccer team would have had its work cut out trying to outplay No. 1-seed Ayala for 80 minutes, but the fact that the full-strength Rebels came 60 seconds away from going into halftime with a lead showed they at least had a chance.
Without the services of star forward Brook Elby for the final 44 minutes of Thursday's match at Ayala, that chance essentially disappeared. The Bulldogs rallied for three straight goals within a 19-minute span following Elby's hip injury and subsequent departure via ambulance near the end of the first half and ended the Rebels' landmark season with a 3-1 loss in the quarterfinal round of the CIF Southern Section Division III playoffs.
Even before it eviscerated Prep's already overmatched offensive attack and stretched the Rebels' defense to the breaking point, the loss of Elby had a significant psychological effect on the team.
"It happened to me as a freshman, so watching someone else getting rushed away in an ambulance, it was just really scary to see," said Alina Okamoto, a Rebels' co-captain along with Elby. "She's a huge, essential, if not the main, component of our team sticking together, so it was really sad to see her leave.
"We still tried to push through it. We tried to play it for her."
Try as they might, the 1-0 lead the Rebels had taken when Elby opened scoring in the 33rd minute was gone three minutes after play resumed following the injury delay when Ayala's Makenzy Doniak converted on an equalizer with one minute left in injury time.
Playing with five defenders after Elby went out, Prep couldn't stop Ayala's Alex Rovira from crossing a ball to Doniak, where Prep goalie Casey Cousineau (eight saves) tried to beat Doniak to the ball on its first bounce in the goal box. Doniak got to the ball first and booted one home on an empty net.
"We were up, 1-0, they were panicking. …But when Brooke went down, I think the team, psychologically, went down too," Prep Coach Esteban Chavez said. "Thirty seconds to go and all we had to do was hold the ball [to end] the first half and you never know, but that really killed the team.
"Not because she's the only one on the team, but I think because it's quarterfinals and she went down, I think the team for a little bit there kind of lost their confidence."
When the second half began, Prep stayed with its five-defender formation, but fell behind, 2-1, in the 51st minute on Doniak's run into the box that ended with a left-to-right shot blasted into the corner. From there it was back to a standard defense, come what may.
"We kept it at a 5-3-2 [to start the second half], but the when they went up, 2-1, I had to go back to offense, we just had to," Chavez said. "They could have scored another six or seven goals, but we have to try and go forward."
While it didn't get a shot off in the entire second half, Prep, behind the backline of Connell Studenmund, Jordan Hutson, Whitney Cohen, Abbey Letts and, at times, Chelsea Johnson, was able to hold Ayala (20-4-3) to just one goal the rest of the way — a Mariah Sims tally assisted by Rovira off a 40-yard free kick in the 55th minute.
"[Ayala] was probably the strongest offensive team we've played this season," Studenmund said. "They just have lots of speed and lots of players. Even though we tried to hold them off, the goals went in. They're a really good team and I feel like they could go on to the finals."
With Dozniak wreaking havoc around the goal for most of the first half, Prep fought off 12 first-half shot attempts, five on goal, and made sure the Bulldogs' best opportunities were missed.
Finally, Arielle Baptiste threaded a pass upfield to Elby on the right wing, where she blasted a hooking shot in stride that landed inside the upper right corner.
"In the first half it was just mainly trying to get on them," Okamoto said. "We couldn't let our nerves get to us and, I think, in the first five minutes, we did. But then we were able to settle down and just play our game. We were able to 'D' up and play Brooke through and she had an amazing goal like usual."
But just moments later, Elby fell to her knees grabbing her hip after pursuing a ball near the Bulldogs' sideline. She remained there on the ground for a few minutes and, as she was carted back to the Rebels' sideline, it became clear her day was done.
"Brooke is one of the leaders on the team, her and Alina," Studenmund said. "Having her leave the game definitely brought us down a bit because she's always up front causing the other team so many problems. But we didn't stop trying, we just had to try harder."
Chavez was surprised to hear Ayala Coach Jeff Allen later admit to him that one of his players had taken a shot at Elby after the play was blown dead.
"I thought she injured herself, but the Coach apologized and he pulled out his player," Chavez said. "With no [live] ball, one of his players just hit her on the side of the leg, that's what he told me.
"It's something in the hip, they don't know, that's why they took her to the ER."
Prep finished the season 17-4-3 and won the Prep League title outright, a year after sharing it with Chadwick, and went two rounds farther in the playoffs than it did a year ago.
"It was the best team I've played with in all my four years," Okamoto said. "It's difficult, but we've accomplished so much and I'm proud of all of us."