Among the members of the Crescenta Valley High girls' water polo team, you won't find any big egos or prima donnas. To hear Coach Pete Loporchio tell it, the Falcons, who are off to an 18-0 start thanks to their depth and team-first approach, are a pretty selfless bunch who would just as soon pass off credit for the team's hot start.
But, inevitably much of that praise and acknowledgment gets deflected back toward junior goalkeeper Gabriel Isacson, whose play in goal has been the backbone of the Falcons' vaunted defense and whose play making as a passer keeps Crescenta Valley's counter razor sharp.
"She's an amazing goalie. ...With how much hard work she puts into everything, Gabriel's just all-around a great player and a great person," Falcons attacker Sabrina Hatzer says.
Fellow CV attacker Breanna Lawton doesn't hold back either when describing Isacson's value to the defending Pacific League champions, who are ranked third in CIF Southern Section Division V and looking to build on last year's trip to the CIF semifinals.
"She's really great defensively," Lawton says. "She talks to us a lot on defense, like where she wants us to go and running our defensive plays. She's really vocal and that helps the team out tremendously. Overall, our defense this year is pretty good and with her help, it just makes it that much better."
With neither above-average height nor an all-encompassing wingspan in her favor, the 5-foot-7 Isacson instead relies on her quickness, lateral mobility and ball-tracking skills. Those traits, along with her composure and conditioning, have the first-year varsity starter quickly making her place in the line of succession of outstanding Crescenta Valley goalies, out of which Loporchio estimates there's been seven All-CIF honorees over the last 15 seasons.
"She's pretty slight and she's not six feet tall, but you can't tell that when she's in the water because her leg strength is tremendous," Loporchio says. "She's a tremendous shot blocker with very strong legs. She doesn't get easily rattled, she has a very good temperament."
It's been hard to rattle the Falcons' defense as a whole this year. Entering Tuesday's 21-10 league win over Pasadena, in which Isacson registered 11 saves in three quarters, Loporchio said the team was averaging 3.5 goals allowed per match, down nearly a goal and a half from last season, while the offense has averaged 14 goals.
"This year I feel we have a lot of good individual players, but when we work together, it works out well and we have good defense altogether," Isacson says of the Falcons, who are 3-0 in league. "I feel like, as a team, we're all working well."
Too talented to stay on junior varsity, according to Loporchio, Isacson got her first taste of varsity experience last season when she was the third goalie on the depth chart behind a pair of seniors.
"She was patient and learned from the seniors," Loporchio says.
During the summer, however, Isacson logged heavy minutes with the Falcon Water Polo Junior Olympic team in its Gold Division title run, setting the stage for her true varsity debut. Isacson showed she was ready from the beginning of the Falcons' season, which began with an impressive run through some tough nonleague tournaments.
"Last year I was third string and I learned a lot on the bench just watching everyone," Isacson says. "This year I was able to be a starter and really show what I learned.
"When you see all these great goalies from the past years you really want to not let the school down. You want to keep up the tradition."
On Dec. 6, Crescenta Valley outlasted Harvard-Westlake, currently ranked second in Division IV, in a defense-dominated 6-5 win in the semifinals of the Mistletoe Classic with six saves from Isacson before besting Newport Harbor, 11-5, in the title game behind 11 Isacson saves.
"She stepped up this year," Hatzer says. "She filled the [starter's] role quite fast and very easily.
"She reads the game and she knows how to adjust to different teams."
One week later, a run through the Conqueror Classic included a 10-0 shutout of Division III No. 4-ranked South Pasadena and an 11-7 defeat of host Los Altos in which Isacson notched a career-high 14 saves. And on Dec. 14, the Falcons' rematch against the Tigers at South Pasadena ended in a 14-8 win for Crescenta Valley and another double-digit save showing (11) for Isacson.
"As a team, we're better defensively, but the goal position, certainly, is a huge component of that," Loporchio says. "Last year we were around five goals per game. From the goalies that I've seen over 17 games, I think she's one of the best goalies I've seen in our division, if not across the board."
Now, three games into the Falcons' league title defense, Isacson has already amassed 25 saves, while often splitting time with fellow junior Maggie Connell.
And, while the Falcons have proved they can win by shutting down opposing shooters, their offensive exploits this season have served notice they're more capable of overwhelming teams with scoring.
"I think one of the big keys that she's improved upon over the summer is outlet passing and pushing the tempo of our offense," Loporchio says. "[Our offense] starts from the goal.
"I've seen a definite progression in her ability to get the ball out and be able to read the game and her outlet passing."
Loporchio likens Isacson to a quarterback or point guard in her ability to drop a pass perfectly in front of a streaking teammate on a counter-attack and read the positioning of a defense on the fly to set up a high-percentage play. It's paid off in high-scoring games for teammates such as Lawton, Hatzer, Shannon Hovanesian, Nayiri Kechichian and others.
"Offensively, she knows exactly where to put the ball and she sees where we're up on counter-attacks and she puts the ball to that side," Lawton says. "Her passes are always really great. She really helps speed the counter into a goal."
For Isacson, it's all part of what she sees as the most exciting position in the pool between the thrill of being the last line of defense and the catalyst of the offense.
"I love being goalie because of the excitement," Isacson says. "I feel like mostly the job is mental, so that's what I love most about it. Obviously, water polo's physical, but I feel like when you're the last chance to help out the team, that's what I Iike most about it. When you make a save it's like the best feeling."
With playoffs on the horizon, things are bound to get more exciting as saves get bigger and bigger. And with deep playoff experience, albeit as a backup, Isacson has the perspective of having been there before, but also knowing what a fleeting chance it is.
"I feel like this year we've had a really good mindset going into games," Isacson says. "We're going to play our best, no matter who it is, and see how it turns out."