With four All-CIF honorees at the core of a large group of players returning this season, the defending champion Temescal Canyon High girls' water polo team likely didn't shock anyone by once again making it to the final four of the CIF Southern Section Division V finals. What may be slightly more surprising is that for the second year in a row, the second-seeded Titans will be matched up against Crescenta Valley in the semifinals at 6 p.m. tonight at Mount San Antonio College.
The Falcons lost their CIF first-team tandem of Kim Fraisse and Adrienne Ingalla, as well as second-teamer Christine Cho, to graduation and yet have arrived at tonight's rematch as the No. 3 seed sporting a perfect 31-0 record.
"It's really been an incredible journey," Falcons Coach Pete Loporchio said. "If you just looked on paper at where we began in terms of the returning number of players we have compared to the Temescal Canyons or the Bonitas, [the Falcons] have really done a tremendous job in terms of putting us in this position."
Fraisse, the All-Area Girls' Player of the Year last year, may have been irreplaceable as a pure scorer, but depth has been the key for the Falcons in their run to the Pacific League title and through the first two rounds of the playoffs with wins over Fontana and Los Altos.
All-CIF third-team attackers Breanna Lawton, a junior, and Sabrina Hatzer, a senior, are the some of the most experienced veterans of last year's season-ending 10-9 loss to the Titans (24-5), a group that also includes senior attacker Stefanie Loporchio and sophomore Shannon Hovanesian.
"The ones that are returning understand the significance and understand the tempo of this Temescal team," Coach Loporchio said. "They know what needs to be done, we just need to be able to execute our game plan correctly."
For the Falcons, that will largely mean looking to run their motion offense in the halfcourt set and spread the Titans' defense out with their large number of scoring options.
"We have more players that score more often on our team than they have," Lawton said. "I think with our wider range of ability to score, that will help us a lot."
Added Stefanie Loporchio: "I think teams respect us as an offensive opponent. They can't just focus on taking down one person, they have to focus on all of us shooting."
Of course, it's easier said than done. In last year's meeting, the Titans' intense physical style and bruising defense kept the Falcons scoreless in the second quarter and behind by as many as five goals in the second half before they mounted a brilliant fourth-quarter rally that fell just short.
"Since they had such an intense and strong defense and it was a competitive game last year, I think it's just going to be the same exact thing this year," Lawton said. "We need to come out really strong and prepared to be physical against them, as well."
New to the equation this season are some Falcons who either saw limited time on varsity last year, like goalie Gabriel Isacson, or none at all, such as Katie Benson and Ashley Taylor. But they've been some of the most valuable contributors this season, a trend that will need to continue today.
"Literally last year they were playing for a JV championship and here they're thrust in a position where they're potentially playing for a CIF championship," Loporchio said. "There's a big difference, but it's a great opportunity for them."
The Titans are led by their four All-CIF returners, goalie Lina Medeiros and two-meter set Ashytynn Nelson, as well as Sammi Murphy and Taylor Johnson.
"For the most part, that's their strength, those four," Coach Loporchio said. "Our hope is we create the right matchups and we use a lot of the depth we have and we can be a little bit deeper."
Indeed that would seem to be the theme espoused by the Falcons when asked about the key to victory — that the Falcons overall depth will trump the Titans' more condensed core of elite talent.
"I think we have a deeper team, definitely," Lawton said. "I'm feeling pretty confident in our team."