GLENDALE — Once more into the semifinals, Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy's soccer team finds itself setting out for a destination that is similar and an outcome that is every bit the opposite.
A season ago, the Tologs found their CIF Southern Section Division II playoff journey conclude in the semifinals on the road in Orange County against Beckman.
This time around, the Tologs will venture once again to an Orange County that is becoming quite familiar upon their path to winning a first-ever CIF championship.
But if anything about last season's penalty kick loss to Beckman is on the minds of the Tologs, it is simply that nobody wants a repeat performance.
"Our attitude toward last year is we don't want that to happen again," junior forward Breeana Koemans said. "I think we're stronger mentally."
Added senior defender Natalie Zeenni: "This year, I look at it like we're not going home with anything but a win."
Obviously that's easier said than done, as the Tologs (18-1-2), the No. 3 seed in the CIF Division I playoffs, face host and second-seeded Esperanza (22-2-5) at 3 p.m. today.
"They're obviously an excellent team," said Tologs co-Coach Frank Pace of the Aztecs, who won the Sunset League and are the reigning Southern Section Division I and Southern California Division I Regional Championships titlists. "They have players that are obviously skilled and have done well in situations like this before."
Ranked third in the state by ESPN Rise, just a notch below the Tologs, the Aztecs earned their way into the semifinals after a 1-0 quarterfinal victory against Mission Viejo on Thursday. That followed a pair of wins over Mater Dei and University by identical 1-0 scores, as well.
Pace, for one, doesn't look at the opposition's slim wins as a weakness, however.
"I've always told our kids, great teams win the 1-0 games," Pace said.
In fact, Pace isn't putting a whole lot of stock in past contests, including common opponents.
Both teams have faced Sherman Oaks Notre Dame, Foothill, Brea Olinda and Aliso Niguel. Esperanza went 5-2 against the quartet, with its only two losses of the season coming to Notre Dame and Aliso Niguel. Against that same quartet, the Tologs have gone 5-0. But, as aforementioned, Pace believes all that means little in a game such as today's.
"Not when it comes down to a game like [today]," said Pace, whose team won the Mission League title. "When you get a team that's the defending divisional and regional champs, they're tournament-tested. They know how to win in pressure situations."
Sacred Heart, coming off an impressive 3-1 win over Tesoro in the quarterfinals, also bested Aliso Niguel, 0-0 (4-3) in the second round and Foothill, 5-1, in the opening round.
"I think we have a lot of momentum going into the game and a lot of confidence," said Koemans, who had a goal and an assist against Tesoro. "Everybody is doing their part to be successful."
Koemans, who missed her share of games earlier in the season with an ankle injury, has returned to past form and has tallied nine goals and seven assists. Fellow junior forward Katie Johnson has put up big numbers to the tune of 21 goals and 10 assists. Defensively, Zeenni, a senior, sophomore Kayla Mills and juniors Katelyn Almeida and Alexa Montgomery have held down the backline as of late. Junior Tera Trujillo and sophomore Sarah Teegarden have also mightily contributed, whether in the midfield or at defense.
The one big change will be starting goalie Samantha Dier will not play after suffering a wrist injury during the final seconds of the win over Tesoro. In will step junior Lindsey Espe, who started for much of the season and was the hero in the win over Aliso Niguel, stopping three penalty kicks.
"We're confident with Lindsey in goal, we won 13 games with her in there," Pace said. "We're fortunate to have two kids who can play that position well."
Esperanza, meanwhile, boasts a defense that has tallied 17 shutouts and given up just 13 goals — and just one in the last six games. Offensively, the Aztecs are led by Rylee Baisden (eight goals and 12 assists), Paulina Good (13 goals, two assists) and Nosa Ogiamen (13 goals, seven assists).
For the most part, though, Sacred Heart's knowledge of Esperanza is rather minimal, especially compared to its previous semifinal opponent, as the Tologs had beaten Beckman the previous season in the playoffs and had won in PKs during a nonleague tournament. And, for all intents and purposes, Pace and Co. believe that lack of familiarity is a good thing.
"I think we had a bigger mental hurdle last year with Beckman … I think we thought they were a better team [than us] and I think Beckman had a little mental edge," Pace said. "We won't have that mental hurdle with Esperanza because we don't know what to think.
"This year, we're gonna go out and just worry about us. We learned that lesson last year."
It's a sentiment echoed by Zeenni, who believes the key to winning is all about playing on the field and leaving the mental game to a minimum.
"Just leave it all on the field," she said. "We can't over think it. We're hearing a lot about this team, but I'm sure they're hearing a lot about us, too."