LOS ANGELES — Though the road taken was a far different one, Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy's soccer team will end its season in the very same place it did a season prior.
Having navigated its way through a most arduous CIF Southern Section Division I tournament and to the program's first-ever sectional title a week ago, the Tologs are now a victory away from defending their CIF Southern California Division III Regional Championships crown.
After another thoroughly dominating performance, this one resulting in a 3-0 victory over St. Margaret's on Thursday afternoon at Occidental College in the semifinal round of the Division III Regional Championships, No. 1 seed Sacred Heart will face third-seeded Oaks Christian on Saturday in the finals.
"We're back," said senior forward Alyssa Conti, who put Sacred Heart up, 2-0, with a 37th-minute score that was sandwiched between a pair of Breeana Koemans tallies. "It feels good, we're going [to the finals] to get the triple crown."
Having won the Mission League title before its Southern Section Division I triumph, the last jewel to be had in the triple crown that Conti mentioned will be winning the regionals, which will be played at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Warren High — the same site at which the Tologs defeated Francis Parker, 2-1, in last year's regionals final for the program's first-ever CIF title. The Regionals Championships title and the subsequent triple crown will not be the only accolade Sacred Heart (23-1-1) is vying for, however.
"Not only is it the triple crown, but it's No. 1 in the nation — something we never even thought of," said Koemans, who opened the scoring in the 34th minute and ended it in the 71st.
Sacred Heart entered its match against St. Margaret's (26-3-1), which won the Southern Section Division VI title, ranked No. 1 in the country, according to ESPN Rise, and should it prevail on Saturday against Oaks Christian — which defeated second-seeded The Bishop's School, 3-0 — would likely finish the season as the top team in the nation.
While on the doorstep of finishing off a season for the ages, the Tologs had to weave their way through a frustrating Tartans defense on Thursday that saw St. Margaret's pack in the middle of the field with a wall of defenders and midfielders that that made for a maddening first half for the Tologs.
"They had 10 in the back and one up top, it was so frustrating," Koemans said. "They were smart, they frustrated us, but we fought through them."
The Tologs had little to no success early trying to play the ball up the middle.
"That was their plan," said Tologs co-Coach Frank Pace of St. Margaret's packing it in. "It was frustrating to me and [co-Coach] Kathy [Desmond] in the beginning, because we practiced against it [on Wednesday] and playing the ball wide and [on Thursday] we tried to crash the ball in the middle."
Even shots were hard to come by at the onset, but eventually, the likes of Katie Johnson, Savannah Viola and Jillian Jacobs would get good looks and solid chances here and there.
In the 34th minute, the Tologs finally broke through when Alexa Montgomery played a high ball over the top to Johnson in the middle. Johnson chested a pass back to Koemans, who fired a shot from just inside 20 yards that put Sacred Heart up, 1-0.
"That really helped us, especially because it was in the first half," Koemans said of finally breaking through. "It gets us going, it gets us in rhythm."
Thus, the frustration for the Tologs began to wane, though the Tartans' approach didn't waver.
"It was hard cause their plan was to sit back and watch us play soccer," Conti said. "Their whole team played defense.
"It was a new challenge."
While the game was, at times, hard to watch, Conti's score in the 37th minute was a thing of beauty brought together by a string of pinpoint passes and concluded by a marvelous shot.
The scoring sequence began with Krista Meaglia in the midfield playing a ball to Johnson, who then found Sarah Teegarden. Teegarden brought the ball wide to Conti on the left wing, who took a high shot that found the inside of the far post for a 2-0 advantage.
"That's great soccer," Conti said. "It was a team goal."
Koemans' second-half tally was the same, as Johnson worked the ball forward and dipped inside before dishing right to Meaglia on the outside. Meaglia brought the ball in deep on the right side before a high cross that was one-timed in mid-air by Koemans for a score.
Sacred Heart outshot St. Margaret's, 25-3, with the Tartans' shots coming on a first-half bomb from midfield and two second-half shots coming on free kicks from the right wing that sailed high over the net. It was a relatively uneventful day for the defense, as goalie Lindsey Espe made just one save on the aforementioned first-half bomb that dropped neatly into her grasp. The backline of Natalie Zeenni, Katelyn Almeida, a returning Montgomery and Tera Trujillo — back from her starting midfield spot to replace an injured Kayla Mills for a second straight game — led Sacred Heart to its fourth postseason shutout in seven games.
And so, a victory removed from his team concluding its dream season, Pace said he believes his Tologs are rounding back into form after a torrid run through the Southern Section playoffs that left them a bit worn down in a regional-opening win over Horizon Christian Academy and through the early moments of Thursday's affair.
"I think we're getting back into the flow of soccer," Pace said. "We spent so much emotional capital on the sectionals, we've been on reserves.
"[Now], we got back in the flow."