DOWNEY — With the heart and soul of its offense all but muted and its rock solid defense undermined by a pair of penalty-box slip-ups, the finals of the CIF Southern California Division I Regional Championships at Warren High in Downey on Saturday proved to be an uncharacteristic end to a program-defining season for the Crescenta Valley High boys' soccer team.
Sixth-seeded Paramount had the right defensive game plan, and just enough offense, to deny the fifth-seeded Falcons in their bid to complete an unbeaten season and become the first team in area history to win both a CIF sectional and regional title in the same season, as the Pirates jumped out early and survived a late rally to win, 2-1, and claim their second regional crown in the last three years.
"When we came out in the second half, we never thought the game was over, especially when we got that goal that made it 2-1," said Falcons senior midfielder Salar Hajimirsadeghi, whose goal on a free kick with seven minutes left gave CIF Southern Section Division IV-champion Crescenta Valley its first signs of life in the game and sparked a furious finish that came up just short. "We were motivated and we were attacking and attacking. …I feel like if we had a few more minutes we could probably have put the ball in the net."
A few more minutes at the end might have changed the Falcons' fortunes, but the first 73 minutes of the match saw Crescenta Valley (23-1-6), which entered ranked sixth in the country by ESPN High School and maxpreps.com and third in the state by maxpreps.com, while garnering the No. 2 spot in the state from ESPN HS, struggle mightily to gain any headway against the Pirates' physical, disciplined play.
With a stellar defensive effort keyed by midfielder Miguel Rueda, who also scored the game-winner, and defenders Jesus Alvarez and Tommy Osorio, Paramount did what few, if any, teams have managed this season in taking Falcons senior forward Pavle Atanackovic out of the game.
"Our game plan was first of all to stop the middle," said Pirates co-Coach Rafa Villasenor, whose team, which won the Division III sectional crown and is ranked 18th in the country and fourth in the state by ESPN HS, kept the dynamic striker bracketed at all times and surrounded by dark jerseys every time he did receive the ball. "If [Atanackovic] doesn't receive any balls, he pretty much is invisible in the game and that's what we pretty much did."
Atanackovic, who scored 38 goals on the season, was held without a shot until the final minutes, but one of the few times he did get some breathing room, it signified the beginning of the Falcons getting back in the game. Atanackovic took a ball from the middle and got free on a run toward the penalty box, but was fouled from behind just outside the box by Alvarez, who drew a yellow card on the play.
Hajimirsadeghi took the direct kick from the spot of the foul and his ground shot found its way through the Pirates' wall and under the reach of Paramount goalkeeper Tony Maldonado into the left corner.
Suddenly, it was the Falcons on the attack for virtually the first time. A pair of corner kicks followed for the Falcons, who had the first attack cleared out before Alex Berger's kick into the box on the second with less than three minutes left found Atanackovic in a crowd.
His header wasn't well-struck, but was perfectly on line, only to be scooped up by Maldonado.
"With a couple more minutes, there could have been a different score probably," Atanackovic said.
After launching just one wayward shot in the first half and losing the possession battle handily, the Falcons had a big hole to climb out of at halftime, both in terms of gaining a momentum foothold and erasing a 2-0 deficit that came about on a pair of set-play goals by the Pirates in a three-minute span late in the half.
In the 30th minute, just four minutes after what looked to be the first goal of the match scored by the Pirates was disallowed on an offsides call, Paramount's Jose Ochoa played a corner kick straight to Alvarez, who was open in the center of the goal box and able to head the ball off the bottom of the left post and into the goal.
Paramount doubled its lead with seven minutes left in the half when Ochoa blasted a 45-yard free kick that Falcons goalkeeper Nick Ruiz was able to save, but couldn't hang onto. Paramount maintained possession on the out-of-bounds call, lofting a long throw by Ochoa into the goal box where it pinballed around before being knocked in by Rueda.
Meanwhile, Crescenta Valley looked increasingly frustrated by its inability to move forward offensively.
"They had two big guys in the back and they cleared everything," Atanackovic said. "The defense was solid, they were very fast, high pressuring and did a great job."
Crescenta Valley's defense responded with another second half shutout, but the offense took considerably longer to come around, as the Falcons didn't get a quality second-half shot until Erick Trejo's salvo off the right post from the left side of the penalty box in the 69th minute.
The Falcons fell short of being the third team in area history to capture the regional title after St. Francis' boys did it in 2009 and Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy's girls pulled it off in 2010. But the Falcons made plenty of history in other areas this season, highlighted by the program's first-ever sectional title.
"We're depressed right now that we lost the game," Hajimirsadeghi said, "but after today when we go home and think about what we really accomplished, I think it's going to hit everyone what we did to this community and to this school."