WALNUT — While his senior season could arguably be remembered as Hakop Kaplanyan's most successful in a Hoover High cap, the final match of his high school career will likely go down as his worst.
Not because the Tornadoes fell to a deeper, more playoff-tested Pasadena Poly squad, 13-6, in the CIF Southern Section Division V semifinals Wednesday night at Mount San Antonio College, but because the final image of an athlete who so dominated swimming pools across the section for four years was of Kaplanyan sitting on the edge of the pool deck powerless.
"It just kills me because I want to be there helping them out and I want to be there doing it, but I'm not able to do anything," Kaplanyan said. "I know for a fact that if I was in there, that five-goal first quarter [deficit] was nothing for us. We've brought games back [from down] seven goals, nine goals, so it was just disheartening. I was powerless to do anything like that, it was just awful."
Depending on who you ask, Kaplanyan's unexpectedly brief swan song was the result of either a blown call or an ill-timed, and poorly concealed, display of aggression.
With two seconds remaining in the first quarter and his team being pushed around by Poly, 6-1, Kaplanyan was rolled from the match for attempting to head butt an opposing player, a charge Kaplanyan vehemently denied, saying he was being held by his cap's drawstring and the misconstrued offensive movement was simply an effort to break free.
But whether Kaplanyan got a raw deal or simply got caught with his hand in the cookie jar, the end result felt like a most unfitting conclusion to an extraordinary high school career.
Kaplanyan, who set the sectional record for goals scored in a single season when he was only a sophomore and has earned All-Area Player of the Year honors for two years running, appears to live for situations such as the one Hoover found itself in early in the first quarter Wednesday night.
Four days earlier against second-seeded Palm Desert in the quarterfinals, Kaplanyan provided the offensive spark from down by a similar deficit in his dynamic signature style — disappearing under the surface, gliding over, around and through defenders with the ball somehow upheld in his palm as if on a tee, then breeching from the depths to launch an unstoppably powerful shot skipped off the water at an impossibly sharp angle that somehow finds the back of the cage before anyone knows where to look.
Kaplanyan's artful blend of grace and power was on display one final time in his only goal of the match on Wednesday, Hoover's first rebuttal to Poly's opening onslaught that might have been the beginning of yet another improbable comeback had he not been ejected for good just seconds later.
"I think it might have affected my players in the way that they've had Hakop for four years now and he's always been there," first-year Hoover Coach Kevin Witt said. "Once that initial shock wore off of not having Hakop there, I thought we calmed down, relaxed and did a very good job."
It certainly affected the Panthers' approach.
"He's a very dominant player, so [with him out] we don't have to drop off the other players to guard him, so that definitely helps," Poly's Henry Pray said. "We could press the rest of the guys and hope our defense stops them."
Poly's defense did stop Hoover from ever mounting a serious comeback attempt, but the Tornadoes didn't throw in the towel just because their best player was gone.
Hoover traded goals with Poly in the second quarter and effectively kept the game from getting out of hand without Kaplanyan's offense to fall back on.
"It sucked losing our best player because he's such a great asset to our team, but at the end we didn't let that put us down," Davo Pogosian said. "We still tried running our offense, doing what we had to do, but at the end it didn't work out."
The image of Kaplanyan exiting the pool in disbelief, then later staring sullenly at the pool with a towel draped over his head may stay burned into the collective consciousness of Hoover for a while.
But it figures to inevitably be replaced by the more enduring images of Kaplanyan's four-year stint as the most exciting individual force in area water polo.