WALNUT — In its bid to avenge a previous playoff defeat and advance to the CIF Southern Section Division V finals, the Crescenta Valley High girls' water polo team gave no ground to Temescal Canyon for most of three quarters, setting the tempo and at times dominating the match with its halfcourt defense.
Yet, after holding their own in a defensive duel altogether devoid of much scoring, the Falcons found themselves with a hill to climb against the Titans late in the game for the second time in as many consecutive playoff runs.
Just as they did once before, the third-seeded Falcons were up to the task of rallying back, but once again saw their season ended by No. 2 seed Temescal Canyon, which held on for a 9-7 semifinal win Wednesday night at Mount San Antonio College.
The loss was the Falcons' first of the season, as the team wraps up the campaign with a stellar 31-1 record one year after suffering a 10-9 loss to the Titans in the semis.
"We just didn't pull through at the times we needed to earlier than the fourth quarter," said Falcons utility Breanna Lawton, who had six steals in the game and a goal during the Falcons' late rally. "It's harder to play catch-up. That's what we were trying to do and it just didn't work."
After closing the third quarter on a 3-0 run over the final 2:31, the Titans took their largest lead of the game, 7-3, on a Dannielle Wenzel goal with 6:36 to play in the game.
Relative to the overall amount of scoring previous — only four total goals were tallied between both teams in the opening half — the four-goal deficit seemed to feel like more, but not to the Falcons.
"I think after the La Serna game when we were down by two with 30 seconds left, we were like, OK it may be [a] big [deficit], but we need to push it," CV attacker Stefanie Loporchio said in reference to the Falcons' improbable come-from-behind 13-12 overtime win over the fifth-ranked team in Division 3 on Feb. 2. "I think we believed in ourselves. We just couldn't put anything away."
Sabrina Hatzer, who led Crescenta Valley with three goals, scored on an assist from Shannon Hovanesian amid a six-on-five advantage to pull the Falcons back to within 7-4 with 5:15 left and Loporchio converted on a 10-foot hook shot on a counter after a Titans offensive-foul turnover a minute and a half later to cut the lead back to two.
Hovanesian then stole the ball, but her ensuing shot attempt was field blocked and Temescal Canyon (25-5) went back up, 8-5, after a twisting skip shot by Melissa Woody on the other end. With the Titans pushing on a breakaway moments later, CV goalie Gabriel Isacson made the biggest of her seven saves to deflect Ashtynn Nelson's shot and set up another possession for the Falcons, on which Lawton scored to make it 8-6.
Nelson's powerful turnaround appeared to all but seal the deal with 1:39 left and the Titans back up by three. But Elissa Arnold scored a man-advantage goal on an assist by Loporchio with 1:15 left and Hatzer then muscled the ball away from a Titan on the Falcons' side of the pool with a minute left, setting up a two-for-one opportunity, with an immediate man-advantage no less.
But, as they had all too often, the Falcons, who were four for 11 on power plays in the match, couldn't convert and ran out of time.
"We tried to [run our offense for a good look]," Falcons Coach Pete Loporchio said. "I would have like if we had pushed the tempo and gotten it into Elissa and Shannon a little bit more instead of being a little bit tentative.
"I think we had some angles and advantages and we tended to pull the ball out a little bit or go behind. I think we just need to do a better job of taking the angle and going to the cage and being a little more assertive."
Crescenta Valley opened the game allowing two goals within the first two minutes, but then held the Titans scoreless for the rest of the first half, primarily by keeping it a halfcourt game and forcing turnovers.
Hatzer scored her second goal of the match off an Arnold steal with 2:39 left in the second quarter to tie the game at 2.
"I think we all felt good by the time we were tied," Lawton said. "We felt like we were still in the game, like we can definitely take the game from here."
The Falcons tied the game once again at 3 on an Arnold goal with 3:08 left in the third, but on the next possession a critical turnover brought the Titans' counter to life. Nelson (four goals) was set up for a wide-open shot on the counter-attack for a 4-3 lead the Titans would never lose and a save by Lina Medeiros sparked another counter-attack at the 2:07 mark, allowing Temescal Canyon to take a 5-3 lead on a Samantha Murphy shot.
"We told [our players] we're getting back in the game on defense, and to keep attacking," said Titans Coach Damien Andrews, whose team took a 6-3 lead into the fourth on a Nelson goal with 15 seconds left. "We were trying to attack, I thought CV did a great job early on at taking away the counter opportunities. We told the girls it doesn't matter, keep attacking because the opportunities will come."
Loporchio said it was tough to have the team's first loss of the season be a season-ender, but said it speaks to the overall success of the campaign.
"It's been a fabulous year," Loporchio said. "Certainly it's disappointing because of the significance of this game, but we're not going to capsulate our season into one game."