WALNUT — Things were already going decidedly the way of Pasadena Poly early in Wednesday night’s CIF Southern Section Division V semifinal match at Mount San Antonio College, making the call that threatened to cripple Hoover more tipping point than turning point.
The unthinkable came like a body blow to the already reeling Tornadoes, in the form of a shockingly sudden misconduct exclusion of senior utility Hakop Kaplanyan, the two-time reigning All-Area Player of the Year and Hoover’s unquestioned playoff catalyst, with not even one full quarter in the books.
And, while the anticlimactic end of Kaplanyan’s high school career may figure most prominently in the epitaph of the most successful water polo season in Hoover history, the overarching theme of Poly’s 13-6 victory was the infallible play of a Panthers team so driven to lock up its second straight trip to the Division V title game, it really didn’t matter who the Tornadoes had in the pool.
“That incident didn’t cost us the game,” Hoover Coach Kevin Witt said of Kaplanyan’s ejection for throwing a head butt with two seconds remaining in the first quarter. “It was everything that happened before and after.”
While Kaplanyan’s absence certainly lessened the odds of a Hoover comeback, such as the one he led over second-seeded Palm Desert in overtime on Saturday that put Hoover in the semifinals for the first time in program lore, the details of the match would seem to bear out Witt’s claim.
Third-seeded Pasadena Poly (26-2), led by standout Henry Pray’s eight goals, had its quick-strike counter-attack working to perfection and ran an airtight defensive scheme, from its solid perimeter coverage right down to the spectacular goalkeeping of Colin Woolway, who finished with 14 saves. The Panthers will play Bonita for the championship at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at William Woollett Jr. Aquatics Center in Irvine.
Hoover (17-7) had a golden chance to score first with a two-on-one breakaway off a Kaplanyan steal, but Woolway saved the shot taken mere feet from the cage. The Panthers then went on a 5-0 run fueled by two goals from Pray and three from Spencer Rogers, who finished with four.
“We knew what their game plan was, we faced it several times when Glendale did the same game plan against us,” Witt said. “I think we just struggled a little bit in the bigger [pool], we got tired. It seemed like we were really excited, as opposed to more calm and relaxed and I think that cost us a couple early mistakes.”
Hoover also had three ejections in the first quarter and paid the price on all of them, including Rogers’ man-advantage goal on a lob from Brock Hudnut that made it 4-0 with 2:38 left in the period.
At the other end, Hoover got its first man-advantage opportunity, only to see it defused by a steal by Pray, who promptly scored on the ensuing possession to give Poly its biggest lead to that point.
“They came out aggressively,” Hoover’s David Pogosian said. “We didn’t play the type of defense we were supposed to play, we rushed everything, but I’m sure if the game continued on and we played the way we were supposed to play, it would have been a closer game and we would have had a chance at victory.”
Kaplanyan scored Hoover’s first goal — and what would be the last in his standout, four-year tenure with the Tornadoes — with 25 seconds left in the first quarter, but moments later was tossed for cocking his head back and bringing it forward toward the player he was guarding in an aggressive motion, according to the referee who made the call.
“The guy had my cap and I was just trying to let it go, I was just playing very, very, very safe,” Kaplanyan said. “The only way to get it out was to just aggressively use manpower to do it, but the way I tried to do it was release myself from the way he was holding my cap and the ref thought that I was doing something to him.
“It was a very bad call and this is a game that I was just going to play very safe and that call was just very, very bad. I know for sure that I didn’t do anything bad.”
To make matters worse, Poly scored on the play to take a 6-1 lead into the second quarter.
Hoover played the Panthers even in the second quarter, staying within 9-4 at halftime on a goal from Hakop Baghumian, off a steal and assist from Arin Azarian, a high lob by David Davtyan (two goals) and a shot by Thomas Bazikyan that got past Woolway and into the lower left corner.
“I think they responded great, they did a great job this entire playoffs,” Witt said of his team. “They knew coming in that we can win no matter what the deficit, no matter what time is left on the clock. The kids were confident, they played extremely hard and I think they played a great second half.”
Hoover scored first in the third quarter on a shot by Pogosian to draw within 9-5, but Poly scored the next three goals unanswered to take a 12-5 lead by the 3:31 mark of the fourth.
“It happens to the best of us and I’m sure that nobody is disappointed in Hoover’s performance one bit,” said Kaplanyan, who led the Tornadoes to a second-place finish in the Pacific League and into uncharted playoff territory. “This is something that Hoover’s never seen before and I’m 100% sure nobody’s disappointed in us.”