PASADENA — With a little two more than two minutes left in the third quarter of a CIF Southern Section Division II girls’ water polo playoff match, La Cañada High regained a one-goal lead against Long Beach Wilson.
The Bruins had just erased a three-goal Spartans lead to start the second half, and even though La Cañada pulled ahead, it still looked vulnerable in its end of the pool.
As La Cañada goalkeeper Carolyne Stern strung together three saves to close out the quarter to preserve the Spartans’ lead, her biggest save of the game coming with 5:08 left on a Wilson five-meter penalty shot.
The save helped shut out Wilson in the final quarter, as La Cañada went on to register an 8-7 first-round win Wednesday at Pasadena City College.
“There was never a panic,” La Cañada coach Robert Eccheverria said. “You learn to build trust with the girls in front of you. There was never a point, even when they tied the game, where going to lose this game.
“We were the better team and I had the better team in front of me, so I felt comfortable about that. I’ve seen them in these situations before, so I felt confident that our defense was going to pull through for us.”
Though the Spartans’ defensive effort highlighted a strong first half, La Cañada (22-7) was exposed in the first three minutes of the second half as Wilson scored three unanswered goals to tie the match at 6.
“Once we started getting into some foul trouble, it changed the way we played, but I thought the girls did a great job” said Eccheverria, whose team won the Rio Hondo League championship for the fourth straight season.
“The defense won the game for us. We went flat for a little bit, but our defense was key. Our center fouled out and we had another player in foul trouble so it really affected the way we normally play. But we’ve been in those situations before all season, training for those.”
Spartans senior Madison Solares scored her second goal of the game to restore the La Cañada lead, 7-6, before the Bruins tied it again moments later.
La Cañada senior Julia Nicholls scored what would be the match-winner with 2:09 left in the third.
Stern strung together three point-blank saves in the final two minutes of the quarter to maintain the Spartans’ one-goal lead.
“We were super-pumped for this game and have been working hard all season long,” said Stern, who finished with 11 saves and is the reigning All-Area Girls’ Water Polo Player of the Year. “We’ve been running so many miles and we’ve been swimming so many yards and we just wanted it to be worth it all in the end. We did it for each other.”
Stern’s crucial moment came with 5:08 left after the USC-commit stopped Daniella Spina’s five-meter penalty shot with the Spartans clinging to an 8-7 lead.
“That save was definitely a huge spark,” Solares said. “It was something we needed to get back into the game. We were playing hard the whole time, but that was really something we needed to get motivated to actually finish.”
Though the Spartans weren’t able to score in the final quarter, the defense woke up to shut down the Bruins (18-11 and champions of the Moore League) on the other end of the pool.
Solares finished with two goals and two assists, Rayne Lopez scored twice and Nicholls added a pair of goals.
“Rayne had some key goals in the first quarter that got us going,” Eccheverria said. “I’ve been preaching defense all season. When our offense goes away, our defense can keep us in games and I think that was the difference today.”
Goals by four players helped the Spartans jump to a 4-0 lead with 4:04 left in the first.
“We were having a lot of movement and it went kind of slow as the game went on, but we picked it up,” Solares said. I think the ball movement is huge. It’s all about finding the player and finishing those shots.”
Wilson got on the board with 36 seconds left in the opening quarter to make it 4-1.
“Defensively, we set the tone,” Eccheverria said. “We were in the lane, which was what we’ve been preaching all season. We got on our fast-breaks, which gave us our easy goals. We set the tone right away.
The Spartans extended their lead to 5-1 with a goal from Lopez before the Bruins launched a quick two-goal rally to slice it to a two-goal difference.
“I think we started to struggle once the game got a little more physical,” Eccheverria said. “I think these girls aren’t going to allow themselves to get beat, so they got a little physical and they got caught.”
Nicholls knocked in her first goal with 1:33 left to close the half with a 6-3 Spartans lead.
La Cañada will meet top-seeded Santa Margarita (16-8), which captured the Trinity League crown, in a quarterfinal road match Saturday at a time to be determined.