The end came suddenly for the La Cañada High boys' soccer team Feb. 25. Some players collapsed face down on the turf, others put their hands on their head and simply walked off the field.
The quarterfinal playoff game had been played even throughout — a 0-0 tie through the first 80 minutes — until the fourth-seeded Salesian High Mustangs extinguished the fifth-seeded Spartans' playoff hopes 10 minutes into sudden death overtime.
“This deserved to be the finals game,” said Salesian Head Coach Mark Johnson. “We have total respect for what La Cañada has accomplished this year. We couldn't break them down all game — they were shutting us down up top — and we're used to scoring four or five goals a game.”
Salesian ended it when the Mustangs' Zayas Jovani got behind a defender in the 90th minute for the first time all match and found Espinosa open five yards in front of the net. Espinosa chipped in the close-range shot past goalkeeper Jack Hale.
It was the Spartans' 12th goal allowed for the 27-game season and their third loss all year.
“I'm happy with our overall record, it's just disappointing to end like this,” said La Cañada forward Cameron Meeker, hanging his head after the loss. “It happens.”
Salesian has scored 108 goals on the season in 24 games — a 4.5 goals per game average.
Johnson gave credit to his defense, which was able to shut down La Cañada's top scorers Meeker and Matt Cannata. Meeker, whose 29 regular season goals was fifth-best in all of the CIF Southern Section, was double-teamed on Thursday from start to finish.
“We felt if we could shut those two down and something else beat us, we could live with it,” Johnson said.
In the La Cañada camp, Head Coach Barry Ritson gave a year-end speech. Returning players tried to focus on next year.
“I don't think we've played a team all year that had three or four kids up top that were as fast as they were today,” said Ritson. “And they countered us quickly. Every time we lost the ball, they transitioned very quickly, and that's difficult to defend. It made us look off-balance.”
The Spartans (23-3-1) were also missing midfielder Danny Thompson, who was out with a leg injury he suffered during the Pioneer Valley game on Tuesday.
“We missed his energy,” Ritson said.
The game was entirely a midfield game in the first half with neither team getting a decent shot off. But in the second half, the field opened up. In the 50th minute, a cross shot got into the La Cañada goal mouth. A Salesian player connected on the header, but Hale snagged the shot for the save.
Hale had seven saves in the game.
Salesian, the reigning CIF Division V champion, will host Baldwin Park on Tuesday in the semifinals.