DOWNEY — Having proven itself time and again against the best athletes in the Mission League and CIF Southern Section Division I playoffs, the Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy soccer team might have entered Saturday's CIF Southern California Regional Soccer Championships at Warren High feeling like it could stop anybody.
But the Tologs hadn't been on the same field with Ally Courtnall yet and the Oaks Christian senior forward proved to be the difference between a triumphant ending and an anticlimactic stumble to end Sacred Heart's historically successful season.
"She was really, really fast," Sacred Heart junior defender Tera Trujillo said of the UCLA-bound Courtnall, who had a hand in all three goals that constituted the Lions' 3-1 win. "She whooped our butts."
Certainly there were other factors in the defending-champion Tologs' upset loss — their first since a 4-3 regular-season defeat by league rival Harvard-Westlake on Jan. 24 — including the absence or unavailability of three prominent players from the very start and the loss of their own leading scorer, Katie Johnson, less than 10 minutes into the first half. There was also a telling post-game admission by some Sacred Heart players that the team simply underestimated the Division IV section champs.
But the Tologs apparently made the mistake of underestimating Courtnall, as well, and she made them pay right away with a goal in the third minute that seemed to stun the previously unflappable Tologs.
"We knew that if we didn't come out hard in the beginning, we would get punished in the end," said Courtnall, who finished the season with 30 goals and 17 assists. "We knew that we had to come out and capitalize on all the opportunities we were given. We knew that they were a really good team, so we just had to come out and just give it our all and that's exactly what we did."
On the Lions' first scoring play, midfielder Mandi Duncan made a pass from the right wing to Courtnall making a diagonal run into the box. Courtnall was able to swiftly get a step inside on the Tologs' defense and bent a shot past Sacred Heart junior goalkeeper Lindsey Espe from 10 yards out.
"We knew she was good, but we didn't know she was going to be that good," Tologs senior defender Natalie Zeenni said. "They definitely caught us off guard."
In the 16th minute, Courtnall turned on her jets again on a run down the right wing, drawing the attention of and getting past two defenders before unleashing a cross on a dead run back to the middle, where junior forward Bianca Deardorff had only a charging Espe to beat for the Lions' second goal.
It wasn't the first time this Tologs team had been challenged by a more aggressive opponent early in a match. It weathered similar storms from Esperanza and San Clemente to claim 1-0 wins in this year's section playoffs and even rallied to beat Francis Parker, 2-1, after giving up a first-half goal in last year's regional title game. But after the Lions (26-2-1) sprinted to a 2-0 lead so quickly, there was a different feel to this one.
"San Clemente came out like that, too, we just didn't get scored on and we turned the tables in the second half," said Tologs co-Coach Kathy Desmond, whose team (23-2-1) claimed its first-ever section crown over the Tartans on March 4. "It just wasn't our day."
And the deficit got deeper just two minutes later, as Courtnall continued to make a defense that had allowed just three goals in all seven of its previous postseason matches look a step slow. Courtnall arrived first at a free ball rolling just past the midfield line, claimed possession and rocketed up the left wing, simply outrunning two defenders into the penalty box and scoring on a left-to-right shot.
"I guess I just used my speed to get by them because I knew that they are very skillful and very good defensively," Courtnall said. "I knew if I got by them there was no way they could catch up."
That proved to be true, both literally and in the context of the match overall.
"I give her props," Zeenni said. "She's an amazing player, she's fast and technical, so we didn't expect that at all."