Roughly five years ago, Gabriel Isacson decided she would give water polo a shot.
Five years later, on a team rife with talent, the unassuming Isacson, perhaps overlooked throughout much of this past season, stepped up and shined on the biggest stage that the Crescenta Valley High girls’ water polo program has ever been upon.
For a program that began under the guise of Peter Kim and Pete Loporchio in the 1996-97 season, Falcons girls’ water polo built a tradition of Pacific League titles and lengthy CIF Southern Section postseason runs. But in the 2013 CIF Southern Section Division V championship this season, Crescenta Valley finally reached the zenith it had been striving for all these years.
And on a team in which everyone played their role to a tee, stepped up at different times and shined, it was Isacson, the Falcons’ senior goalkeeper, who shined brightest in the biggest game in the history of the program.
“I thought her performance was incredible,” says Falcons teammate Breana Lawton. “I don’t know what she did pregame or what she was thinking, but she was on top of her stuff.”
Against Riverside Poly at Irvine’s William J. Woollett Jr. Aquatic Center, with a season and an elusive CIF plaque at stake, Isacson rose to the occasion, dazzling the opposition, coaches and fans alike with a 16-save performance that was as impressive and dramatic as it was historic in leading the Falcons to a 10-5 title triumph.
Isacson had been steady and splendid all season long, but when it came time to win a championship, she was flat out amazing.
Therein lies the foundation for Isacson being voted the 2013 All-Area Girls’ Water Polo Player of the Year by the sports editors and writers of the Burbank Leader, Glendale News-Press, La Cañada Valley Sun and Pasadena Sun.
“She definitely grabbed everyone’s attention,” says Falcons first-year Coach Brent Danna, an El Toro High graduate. “My coach from El Toro came up to me after the game and said, ‘You owe your goalie a steak dinner.’”
What Isacson got was the recognition as the All-CIF Southern Section Division V Player of the Year.
“She was a unanimous selection for All-CIF Player of the Year,” Danna says.
But most important to Isacson and her teammates was the realization of achieving a season-long goal of winning a CIF title. It was a goal the Falcons set forth to accomplish from before the season began and one they didn’t hesitate to admit they were striving to carry out.
“That was definitely our main goal. The first day, it was all about CIF,” Isacson says. “I think because we got so close the last couple years, we didn’t want to replay that scenario.”
While the CV program had been vying for a CIF championship since its 1996 debut, Isacson had only just begun playing water polo shortly before beginning high school.
She took it up at the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center when she was 14.
“I’ve always liked water sports,” Isacson, 17, says. “I just love the water. I’d rather be in the water.”
And water polo came quickly to Isacson.
“She’s always improving and wanting to improve,” Lawton says. “She just goes out there and has fun. A lot of it I think comes naturally to her.”
After a freshman season with the junior varsity squad at Crescenta Valley, Isacson was moved up to varsity as a sophomore under then-coach Loporchio. With a pair of senior goalies already on the team, Isacson didn’t get all that much playing time, but Loporchio felt the goaltending prodigy would simply be treading water at the JV level.
“I knew at that time she was too good to keep her at the JVs,” Loporchio says. “I could see even at that level [how good she could be].”
The Falcons ascended to the CIF semifinals in Isacson’s sophomore year. Then, as a junior, Isacson had the cage all to herself for the most part and stood out. She tallied 228 saves, along with 19 steals and 18 assists, earning All-CIF, All-Area and All-Pacific League first-team honors as the Falcons advanced to the semifinals yet again.
As a senior, though, Isacson’s role was tweaked a bit. Fellow senior Maggie Connell proved to be a solid goalie, as well, and the two often split time. Isacson would start, play the first half and Connell would usually finish out the second half — often times when the Falcons had already blown out their opposition.
“I realized this season we have another great goalie,” says Isacson, who had 147 saves this season. “I’m not gonna play the whole game if they don’t need me.”
Indeed, by all accounts, Isacson took it all in stride, never wavering in her efforts to help the team and push them toward a CIF crown.
“Gabriel was a total team player,” Danna says. “Gabriel was awesome about it.”
With a cavalcade of standouts — Lawton, Shannon Hovanesian, Ashley Taylor, Elissa Arnold and Katie Benson among them — the Falcons ran roughshod to an undefeated Pacific League title and an array of impressive nonleague victories, many of them against higher-division heavyweights.
“Everyone brought different aspects to the team,” Lawton says. “Our whole starting lineup had something to offer.”
Along the way, though, perhaps Isacson was a bit overlooked in the back of the cage. Perhaps it was because the Falcons were so dominant and their defense so stingy. Perhaps it was because onlookers only glimpsed Isacson’s brilliance but for only a half of play often times.
“I wouldn’t say [people] forgot about her — well, maybe they did,” Lawton says. “But it’s hard to believe anyone would forget how great she is.
“I think she kind of still spoke for herself. She showed her skills and how great she is in the halves she played.”
In at least one way, Isacson was overlooked, as she received only honorable mention on the All-Pacific League team. Then again, the Falcons blew out their league foes and Isacson’s exploits were hardly highlights when shots and scoring chances against Crescenta Valley were at a premium.
“I don’t know if people forgot. I think the defense did such a great job giving up such weak shots that we weren’t able to feature her as much,” Danna says. “She played amazing all year long. We saw it every day in practice, that’s one of the reasons our offense was so good, because she forced them to take such good shots in practice.”
Even in the early rounds of the playoffs, the Falcons rarely needed to call on Isacson for four quarters of work. Even in the semifinals, in which she tallied seven saves during a 14-4 throttling of Redlands East Valley, Isacson was given a breather as Crescenta Valley finally overcame its semifinal obstacle.
That all changed in the CIF championship, of course.
Calmly and coolly, Isacson was at her finest, as she blocked 16 shots, including a five-meter attempt, led a defense that held second-seeded Riverside Poly to a one-for-six day on six-on-five chances and was arguably at her best in the fourth quarter when the Falcons emerged from a tight game and swam away with a CIF title.
To Isacson, though, it was a performance very much lost in the moment.
“I was actually shocked when I came out of the pool and everybody was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you did so great,’” she says. “I didn’t realize I was blocking so many shots.”
While Isacson was surprised by the fanfare, at least one person in attendance was not surprised by the senior keeper’s performance.
“I could kind of see her ability to rise to the occasion in games like that,” says Loporchio, who points to Isacson’s All-American performance in a Junior Olympics gold medal game as another moment in which Isacson came up clutch. “She has that quiet subtleness where she can control the game from the cage. She was phenomenal in the [CIF championship] game. She rises to the occasion in games like that, I’ve seen it before.
“I was impressed, yet not surprised.”
Maybe it’s all in the approach for Isacson.
“She’s calm, she’s mellow. She seems to have the same demeanor all the time,” Danna says. “Whether it’s 6:30 in the morning, 3:00 in the afternoon or the CIF championship, she’s always the same. I think that’s why she was able to be so consistent throughout the year.”
Adds Loporchio: “She really is very quiet and unassuming, but then she comes to play.”
And she most assuredly came to play when the Falcons needed her most.
“It’s definitely relieving that if our defense fails, she’s always back there. We know she always has our backs,” says teammate and friend Jesse Gabor. “She was incredible [in the championship]. I was so proud of her.”
Consistent in approach and performance, Isacson did jump into the pool with one thing different that day in Irvine. Though Loporchio, now the coach at Los Angeles Valley College, and likely many more are hoping she changes her mind, Isacson took a stand against Riverside Poly as if it were her last.
“I was going into the game thinking it would be my last,” Isacson says, “so I better make it a good one.”
It was a great one — and it brought about the greatest achievement in Crescenta Valley girls’ water polo history.