GLENDALE — In little more than a year, the Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy soccer team has captured a Mission League title and a CIF Southern California Division III Regional Championships plaque. But, as impressive as the conquests of this current group of Tologs are, there's still one white whale that remains at large —a CIF Southern Section championship.
"CIF finals, it has been my dream," Sacred Heart co-captain forward Alyssa Conti said. "[Co-captain] Natalie Zeenni and I have been saying all year, triple crown, triple crown — and that's Mission League, CIF and Regionals.
"It's my goal. I want to hang a banner in our gym to represent for our school and for our soccer team."
Sacred Heart (19-1-2) will get its first-ever chance to win a coveted CIF Section title when it squares off with San Clemente (19-2-7) for the Southern Section Division I title at 7:30 p.m. today at Mission Viejo High.
Zeenni, a defender, indicated that the Division I championship represents the crown jewel, so to speak, of the aforementioned triple crown.
"Especially because we're D-I this year, so if we win that we are the best team in Southern California," said Zeenni, whose team was eliminated in the Division II semifinals last season. "Since we already won league, that's already behind us and state, since we won it last year, is not as big. But CIF is definitely at the top of the list."
The edge in finals experience goes to top-seeded San Clemente, which boasts 11 seniors and has been a Division I finalist three years in a row. But, having knocked off No. 2 seed Esperanza — the same team that beat San Clemente for the championship last year — in the semifinals on Tuesday, Sacred Heart has shown it can play with anyone in Division I.
Before outlasting the Aztecs, 1-0, in overtime, the Tologs dispatched Foothill, Aliso Niguel and Tesoro. The Tritons' playoff path took them through Orange Lutheran, Yucaipa and Corona del Mar before Tuesday's 2-2 (4-2) win over Santa Margarita in the semis.
"I would guess they're not going to take us lightly. …You don't go through Aliso, Tesoro and Esperanza by mistake," Tologs co-Coach Frank Pace said. "They beat Santa Margarita. Santa Margarita beat [Mission League rival] Harvard-Westlake, 4-0. We lost to Harvard-Westlake and tied them. That tells me something."
San Clemente, ranked No. 2 in the nation by ESPN Rise, has been lights out defensively in the playoffs, posting shutouts in the first three rounds. Like the Tologs, who are ranked third in country by ESPN Rise, the Tritons are deep and their scoring offense is balanced.
Sacred Heart's defense, consisting most often of Zeenni, Kayla Mills, Alexa Montgomery and Katelyn Almeida, has also only allowed two goals in the entire postseason. On offense, the Tologs have a number of weapons, including starting forwards Breeana Koemans and Katie Johnson.
"I think it's going to be a great matchup," San Clemente Coach Stacey Finnerty said. "I know Sacred Heart very well. They're a great group, they've got star players, so I think we're going to match up really nicely.
"They're a great team, so I think it will be a battle, it will be tough."
The Tologs will be the host team today, but essentially in name only, as the Mission Viejo campus is a mere 14 miles from San Clemente, or roughly a quarter of the trek to Mission Viejo from La Cañada Flintridge.
"It's frustrates us so much," said Koemans of going to Orange Country for the third time in the playoffs. "That also helps us, because our mindset is we're traveling all the way out here, we're not gonna go that far to lose."
Both squads figure to have their own plentiful sources of motivation.
"We weren't happy last year [when] we tied Esperanza and lost in PKs in the finals," Finnerty said. "We're hoping this year, we'll make up for that."
Said Koemans: "Right now, as a team, we really want this. We just have a positive, no-one-can-beat-us attitude."