With winds wreaking havoc on Tuesday's CIF Southern California Division I Regional Championship opener, the Crescenta Valley High boys' soccer team needed to take advantage of any edge it could to find a scoring opportunity.
Alex Berger did just that for the Falcons when the senior midfielder booted in a free kick in the 17th minute for which there would never be an answer, as the Falcons defeated host Central Section Division I champion Buchanan of Clovis, 1-0, to advance to the second round on Thursday.
"We're all like brothers to each other, so we just want to stay together as long as we can," said Berger, whose team improved to 22-0-6 and will play host Long Beach Millikan, the No. 1 seed, at 4 p.m. on Thursday. "We just want to win Thursday and keep playing together as long as we can."
Berger was awarded a free kick in the 17th minute, but as the fourth-seeded Bears were getting in position to defend it, one of them fouled Berger's teammate Pavle Atanackovic, who remained on the ground for a few seconds. After a brief break in the action, in which the referee checked on Atanackovic, Berger noticed the Bears hadn't yet formed a defensive wall and their goalkeeper Brandon Gettman was out of position.
Berger subtly got the OK from the official to take his shot and curved it inside the far post for a 1-0 lead before the stunned Bears (19-6-1) could react.
"It was brilliant," Crescenta Valley Coach Grant Clark said of Berger's quick wits. "For a high school player to be that aware of what was going on around him and to be able to think that far ahead and take that shot, it was really great thinking on Alex's part. He caught everybody [off guard], including our guys. Nobody was ready for that."
Crescenta Valley, the No. 5 seed, had chances to build on its lead soon after Berger's tally, but a brief run of unconscious play from Gettman, who stopped four shots in succession, all from inside the 10-yard line, kept the score where it was.
"It was difficult [to score]," Berger said. "We probably had like four point-blank shots on goal and the keeper just came up big for the other team. There was always somebody standing in the way or something, but if we had finished those, I think it would have been an easier game."
In a physical second half, the Falcons had the uphill task of playing into the wind, which made scoring a near impossible task, and Berger's first-half goal all the more valuable.
"Every time Nick would punt the ball it would go straight up and about 30 yards across the field," Clark said of goalkeeper Nick Ruiz, who had five saves. "It caused a little extra stress for us because we couldn't really get the ball up the field. We had to work it up ourselves, there was no easy out, so that left [the Bears] on the attack the whole second half."
But the Falcons' defense held fast to put up its second straight postseason shutout. In contrast to Friday's 3-0 win over top-seeded El Rancho in the CIF Southern Section Division IV championship, in which starters Matt Schmutzer, Matthew Bracht, Brian Ju and Tony Royer dominated wire to wire, Tuesday's effort required some scrambling.
Clark was forced to play midfielders Salar Hajimirsadeghi and Rani Dimashki, as well as forward Erick Trejo, on the backline when Schmutzer and Royer were limited by injuries.
"This one was completely different from Friday night," Clark said. "We had a merry-go-round in the back. Everybody took a turn pretty much to make this one happen. This was a group effort."