IRVINE — All season long, the La Cañada High boys' water polo team relied on a balanced offense, while Laguna Beach has leaned on its goal-scoring standout Nolan McConnell for offense.
The Breakers' offensive strategy proved more effective when both teams met up in the Southern Section Division III semifinals at the William Woollett Jr. Aquatics Center in Irvine Wednesday.
McConnell had a game-high five goals and drew double-teams all game, which opened things up for his teammates, in a 14-5 Laguna Beach victory.
The Spartans had faced the top-seeded Breakers once before this season when they traveled to Laguna Beach on Oct. 11. Laguna Beach pulled out a narrow, overtime victory, 14-11, without McConnell. The result was much different with him.
"They had their best player in this game, they didn't have him last time," La Cañada Coach Steve Neville said. "That's the one and only thing that was different.
"[McConnell] literally creates everything possible in every aspect of the game. He's a great defender, a great passer, a great shooter. He's unstoppable pretty much."
Laguna Beach Coach Ethan Damato felt much more comfortable having his star in the water.
"[McConnell's] our best player, I think he's the best player in the country," Damato said. "It's nice to game plan with him in the water.
"I felt the matchups they presented were a lot scarier without him in the water. I thought if we played well we could win by a lot. We knew if we didn't they're a tough, scrappy team and we were expecting a battle."
La Cañada struggled offensively the entire game, committing 11 turnovers, firing 12 shots off target and only managing to score twice on seven six-on-five chances. Erik Henrickson, Laguna's goalie, also had an impressive 15 saves in the game. Wolfie Paulson, the Spartans' goalie, had 10 saves in the game.
"We had our opportunities early and throughout the game, they just didn't go in," Neville said. "We just didn't put our opportunities away."
The match was still the closest Laguna Beach has played so far this postseason, as the Breakers defeated Temple City, 21-1, and Mira Costa, 19-7, in the first and quarterfinal rounds, respectively.
Laguna Beach, the tournament's top seed, came out on fire and took a 4-1 lead in the first quarter, behind two McConnell goals. The Spartans first got on the board when Allen Morovati scored on a man-advantage, off an assist from Peter Loakes, with 3:38 remaining in the quarter to trim the Breakers' lead to 2-1.
McConnell scored his second goal of the game with 2:17 left in the first, followed by a score from Caleb Scott, who finished with three goals, with 38 seconds left, giving Laguna Beach a 4-1 lead headed into the second quarter.
Symeon Stefan got La Cañada (19-7), the No. 4 seed, on the board first in the second quarter, cutting the lead to 4-2, but the Breakers (21-5) still increased their lead to 7-3 at halftime behind another goal from McConnell and two from Ben Thomas. Bryce Hopkins had the Spartans' other goal with 1:55 to go in the half.
"We just didn't step up as much as we should have," Loakes said. "I felt like we should have been tied the entire game, but they just took an early lead and kept it."
Things got ugly in the third quarter, as Laguna Beach scored four more goals and held La Cañada scoreless in the seven-minute span to carry an insurmountable 11-3 lead into the final quarter.
"They already played us, so they knew who our shooters were," said Loakes, explaining his team's struggles on offense. "They probably practiced that a lot."
Scott scored twice in the quarter and McConnell added another to his tally.
Stefan scored two more times for a team-high three goals, but the Breakers kept up their tempo, scoring three goals in the final quarter for the final 14-5 tally.
The victory puts Laguna Beach in the Division III finals against Damien (24-6), which defeated Palos Verdes, 10-8, Wednesday. The game is scheduled for Saturday at 11:45 a.m. At the William Woollett Jr. Aquatics Center.