When the season began, the Crescenta Valley High boys' soccer team was so singularly focused on the overriding goal of capturing a CIF Southern Section Division IV title, anything else was purely an afterthought.
With that prize now in the bag, the opportunity to win the program's first-ever CIF Southern California Division I Regional championship is now front and center in the Falcons' minds.
"The top goal was to win CIF, we didn't even know about state at that point, at the beginning of the season," Crescenta Valley senior striker Pavle Atanackovic said. "After CIF, we found out we were going to state and it was just another goal we set."
The Falcons (23-0-6) have been remarkably reliable in meeting their goals this season, whether it's been a third straight Pacific League title or the program's first CIF sectional crown. Now they stand just one win away from capturing the regional title and capping an unbeaten season when they take on Paramount in the final round today at 6 p.m. at Warren High in Downey.
While Warren is a close and familiar venue for the Pirates, who are in the San Gabriel Valley League with the Bears, it's a site where the fifth-seeded Falcons have had success before, beating El Rancho, 3-0, on March 2 in the CIF finals.
"We know we're going back to Warren, we like that field," Falcons senior goalkeeper Nick Ruiz said after the team's 2-1 win over top-seeded Long Beach Millikan in the regional semifinals on Thursday. "We want to take it home. We've come this far, we might as well take it all."
While Atanackovic (38 goals) remains as potent an offensive weapon as any in the region and the Falcons boast an assortment of capable scorers and facilitators, including midfielder Alex Berger (10 goals, 28 assists) and Erick Trejo (10 goals, 11 assists), it's been the defense that has most thoroughly confounded opponents in the playoffs.
Led by Ruiz and the backline of Matt Schmutzer, Matthew Bracht, Brian Ju and Tony Royer, the Falcons have allowed just one goal in their last three matches and none in the second half in that span.
"We know they defend," Paramount Coach Rafa Villasenor said. "We know they like to work on counter-attacks and we have to be careful with that, but if our offense wakes up, I know our defense is solid and we'll take care of that.
"We've got to score early and try to put them against the ropes and hope they don't counter on us."
Sixth-seeded Paramount (23-4-4), which won its third straight Division III sectional title March 3 and advanced to the regional final with a 1-1 (5-4) win over Torrey Pines on Thursday, has an explosive scorer in junior midfielder Frankie Perez, who leads the team with 25 goals. Senior Jose Ochoa and junior Juan Ortega are the strength of the midfield and the defense is anchored by senior sweeper Tommy Osorio.
"We saw them play against El Rancho, we know they're a big, physical team and we have to pretty much try to match up with them with our speed and our experience," Villasenor said. "And we have some big boys that can hang in there physically with them."
Falcons Coach Grant Clark said he is expecting one more tough match against yet another difficult opponent to end the year.
"It's been a couple of years, but we used to play Paramount early in the season and it seems like every time we went over there or they came over here, they were a very good team," Clark said. "They move the ball around the field well and, obviously, with three CIF section championships in a row, once again, if you want to win the championship, you've got to beat a good team."