LONG BEACH — Whether trading fire in the first half or putting it out in the second, the still-undefeated Crescenta Valley High boys' soccer team was in vintage playoff form on both sides of the field in a 2-1 win against top-seeded Long Beach Millikan in the Southern California Regional Division I semifinals on Thursday afternoon.
Crescenta Valley senior forward Pavle Atanackovic scored a goal and assisted on one by Eric Keshishian, both in the first half, and Nick Ruiz saved two shots that were as good as goals for the host Rams to key another stalwart second-half defensive effort in a Falcons postseason littered with them.
"They figure out ways to finish things, they get things done," said Crescenta Valley Coach Grant Clark, whose team will make its first regional title-game appearance against Paramount at 6 p.m. Saturday at Warren High. "These guys, they just work until the very end. I don't know who taught them to do that, but I'm glad they did."
The fifth-seeded Falcons (23-0-6), who opened the regional Tuesday with a 1-0 road win against fourth-seeded Buchanan of Clovis, once again pitched a second-half shutout to protect a one-goal lead and did so under the intense pressure of a desperate Division I champion that threw attacks in waves at the Falcons' goal over the tense final 20 minutes.
But the Rams' best chances of the second half came just before that on a pair of shots from inside 10 yards that Ruiz made deft stops on.
With 22 minutes left, a ball that appeared to have been cleared from the Falcons' goal box was suddenly redirected back to Rams midfielder Jordy Silva, who was alone in the box with Ruiz with no other player within 10 yards. Silva turned and fired without hesitation, but his point-blank shot was right at Ruiz, who made a reflex save to poke the ball away.
Two minutes later, Millikan's Jaime Salazar got a clear look from the elbow of the penalty box, but Ruiz stretched out to make a deflection with his fingertips.
"I had that mental breakdown in the first half when I let that [goal] in, so I felt like I owed it to my team to get those two saves," said Ruiz in reference to a first-half goal by Salazar that squirted between Ruiz and the left post to put the Falcons in a 1-0 hole. "Those were great shots. I just tried to get a hand to it and luckily I could."
Half of the Falcons' starting backline, Matt Schmutzer and Tony Royer, was unable to finish out Tuesday's game due to various injuries, but both players were back Thursday and turned in an outstanding effort along with fellow defenders Brian Ju and Matthew Bracht. The Falcons allowed just four second-half shots, even though the Rams were on the attack for most of the half.
"All the credit goes to my defense," Ruiz said. "They step up no matter what happens. Both Matts, Tony and Ju, they always come up big and that's what matters."
Millikan's final chance came with three minutes left and was as scary as any on the day, but Hugo Gonzalez' kick went wide right even after he had sneaked behind the Falcons' line for a point-blank attempt.
Earlier in the second half, it was Crescenta Valley missing by inches on some golden opportunities to pad the lead and put the match completely out of reach.
Alex Berger had a 35-yard free kick from the left side clang off the right post in the 50th minute before the rebound went to Atanackovic on the right side. Atanackovic's shot from just inside the penalty box was saved nicely by Rams goalkeeper Alex Beltran, though.
"I thought we were going to have a couple more [goals] when Pavle and Alex put together those two shots," Clark said.
The Falcons and Rams traded opening tallies within four minutes of each other, beginning with Salazar's goal that put Millikan up, 1-0, 18 minutes into the match.
The play was keyed by Bracht's stumble during a one-on-one situation with Millikan's Luis Cervantes deep in the right corner. After Bracht lost his footing, the suddenly unmarked Cervantes made a direct beeline to the goal box, drawing the attention of the Falcons defense and opening up Salazar on the front edge of the penalty box for a pass. He made a quick cut to his right before stopping and firing a shot that cleared the closing gap between the left post and Ruiz.
Millikan's lead only lasted until the 22nd minute, when the Rams suffered a defensive breakdown of their own. Berger made his way down the center of the field, stopped from 35 yards out and played the ball up to Atanackovic, who was streaking down the right side with a single defender on him, who he had already gained two or three steps on. Once Atanackovic crossed his dribble back to the middle of the box, he had Beltran at his mercy and buried a shot in the lower left corner to tie the score.
With four minutes left in the first half, it was Atanackovic again getting a pass from Berger with a defender at his back, who poked the ball away into the corner. Atanackovic tracked the ball down in the far corner and fired a kick along the endline back into the box, where a quick deflection set Keshishian up with an easy tap from five yards out.
"If we get scored on, we just stay calm and relaxed like it's a 0-0 game," Atanackovic said. "It's like nothing changed."
Millikan, which won the CIF Southern Section Division I crown, falls to 28-2-3 after entering the match as the fifth-ranked team nationally and first in the state by ESPN High School, while the Falcons carry on ranked sixth in the country and second in the state by ESPN HS.