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Looking Back: La Cañada teams fueled off pressure for successful campaigns

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The La Cañada High girls’ tennis team winning a CIF Southern Section championship is one of the highlights from the 2018-19 campaign.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

This is the latest in a series looking back on the sports accomplishments of the four local high schools during the 2018-19 year. This installment is La Cañada High:

It was an unprecedented run for the La Cañada High School girls’ tennis team in the fall, and as the Spartans’ journey through the CIF Southern Section Division II continued to extend, the expectation to win it all grew, and so did the pressure.

With generational talent in the swimming pool, the La Cañada swim team looked to make a mark in the CIF Southern Section Division II Championship in the spring.

After disappointment for the baseball team the previous year, the Spartans moved through the trenches of the Division III playoffs with a pair of extra-inning victories to make its first final appearance in program history.

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Those are just some of the stories that would reflect the theme for all the La Cañada sports programs throughout the year: with the pressure came thrilling league campaigns, postseason games and playoff success for a number of teams.

Alongside the girls’ tennis team, the swim team and the baseball team, the La Cañada boys’ basketball, girls’ water polo and boys’ tennis programs enjoyed deep playoff runs.

The girls’ basketball, boys’ soccer and girls’ basketball teams also had playoff stints as well, while individuals on the cross-country, track and field and wrestling squads highlighted their program.

The Spartans’ girls’ tennis team highlighted the fall season with a historic victory.

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La Cañada captured its first girls’ tennis title since 1977 in the Division II championship match with a 13-5 win against Aliso Niguel at the Claremont Club.

La Canada (14-4) finished second in the Rio Hondo League behind perennial powerhouse San Marino, but that fueled the flames for the Spartans’ road to the Division II final. Coach Will Moravec and his team started the playoffs with a first-round victory against Brentwood, 14-4, and followed with a 13-5 win against No. 2 Redlands.

In the quarterfinals, a 10-8 home win against Claremont advanced the Spartans to a semifinal date against No. 4 Long Beach Poly, which finished with an 11-7 win for La Cañada.

With the title under their belt, a trio of players had the season continuted at the CIF Individual Tournament at the Seal Beach Tennis Center.

Rio Hondo League doubles champions Maya Urata and Eliana Hanna teamed up to make a run to the quarterfinal, while league runner-up Sophie McKenzie, the former All-Area Girls’ Singles Player of the Year reached the singles round of 16.

Another team that had a playoff berth was the boys’ water polo team after they qualified with a fourth-place Rio Hondo League finish (11-15 overall, 5-6 in league). It was a short trip, however, as the Spartans lost, 10-7, to Sonora in the CIF Southern Section Division V first-round match.

On the cross-country team, though the girls’ team failed to retain their four-time league title, the Spartans sent two runners to the state event after qualification marks in the CIF Southern Section Division V Championship.

La Cañada junior and reigning Rio Hondo League champion Ellaney Matarese represented the girls after she placed 13th in the division finals in a time of 18 minutes, 24.30 seconds. Spartans senior Owen Serrichio became the first boys’ runner since 1999 to advance to the state competition after he finished 14th in 15:34.5.

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Though these teams thrived, other teams in the fall struggled to find footing.

The girls’ volleyball team saw coach Chris Sullivan depart midway into the season and finished with an overall 11-16 mark. A 5-6 Rio Hondo League record was good enough for fourth place.

Hampered with injuries in the linesman department, the Spartans football team won just one game in the fall with a 37-6 nonleague win against New Design Watts in late September.

Though La Cañada (1-9) finished winless in the Rio Hondo League for the second consecutive season, the Spartans’ lone win of the year snapped a losing streak that dated back to 2016.

Four teams qualified for the playoffs in the winter, but it was the Spartans boys’ basketball team that had the deepest run.

After winnings its sixth consecutive Rio Hondo League title, La Cañada appeared in its first boys’ basketball final since it last won it in 2011. Entering his third CIF Final, coach Tom Hofman and the Spartans came into the CIF Division II-A title game as the No. 3 seed and faced the division top-seed Colony.

The Spartans opened the run to the Division II-A final with a 57-43 win against Burbank followed by a 65-36 win against La Mirada and a 50-37 quarterfinal victory against Walnut.

In the semifinal against Crean Lutheran, the Spartans erased a double-digit deficit in the second half to come away with a 77-74 double-overtime victory.

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In a tight championship game, the Spartans fell to the No. 1-seed, 50-47, then exited the Division II CIF Boys’ Basketball Championships with a 67-56 loss to Cathedral Catholic in the first round.

Seniors Ryan Graves and Zach Feehan were named Rio Hondo League Co-Players of the Year as the Spartans finished with an overall record 27-7.

Graves was selected to the All-CIF Division II-A first-team and averaged 17 points and six rebounds on his way to break the school-record of three-pointers made (116). Feehan, an All-CIF second-team selection, averaged 10 points and pulled down a single-season record 420 rebounds (12.3 per game). The pair would also make considerable noise on the baseball team later in the spring.

The girls’ water polo team also made a lengthy playoff run in the CIF Southern Section Division II brackets.

Led by USC-bound goalkeeper Carolyne Stern, the Spartans reached their second-consecutive CIF Southern Section Division II quarterfinal, losing, 8-6, to eventual champion Santa Margarita. RHL champion, 21-8.

Stern made 438 saves and received All-CIF Division II first-team honors and a second, consecutive first-team all-league selection.

In wrestling, the program’s first-ever girls’ wrestler to qualify for state competition Sophie Garcia capped her prolific career in the consolation round of 16 in CIF State Wrestling Championship at the Rabobank Arena in Bakersfield.

The 170-point grappler fell to a 2-1 decision against Maliya Castillo of Ridgeview High. Garcia qualified for the state event after a fourth-place finish in the Master’s Meet.

Along with Garcia’s success, the Spartans wrestling team broke their own record from 2018 and qualified 13 wrestlers to the CIF Individual Wrestling Championships after an impressive day at the Rio Hondo League Wrestling finals. The championships was highlighted by senior Johnny Vasilly, who defended his 170-pound title for the third time.

For the girls’ basketball team under new coach Owen Keenan, the Spartans captured their fourth consecutive Rio Hondo League title and extended an unbeaten league streak that began in 2015. However, the celebrations were short-lived as La Cañada fell to Leuzinger in the Division II-AA first round, 54-52.

Brooke Yasuda was named League MVP and averaged 11.8 points and 6.3 rebounds per game as the Spartans finished 23-5 overall and 8-0 league.

In a quest to regain the Rio Hondo League title, the La Cañada boys’ soccer team saw its opportunity to capture its second league championship in three years go awry after a 5-0 loss to South Pasadena.

However, the Spartans regrouped for a crucial 2-1 win against Temple City and a big 4-1 victory to claim the Rio Hondo League crown. A 1-0 first-round loss to Nogales in the CIF Southern Section Division VI playoffs ended La Cañada’s season with a 15-5-7 record.

The Spartans girls’ soccer team struggled to gain traction after eight of their 11 starters graduated. La Cañada finished last in the Rio Hondo League with a 2-5-1 league mark.

A CIF Division II title for the La Cañada boys’ twim team and a Division III final appearance for the baseball team were the high notes for the Spartans’ spring.

The Syrkin siblings contributed to the Spartans’ swim team’s Rio Hondo League titles on the boys’ and girls’ squads.

On the boys’ team, Danny Syrkin broke multiple records, including his own, to help the Spartans retain their Rio Hondo League title and capture their first CIF Southern Section Division II boys’ swimming championship after a top-three finish in 2018.

La Cañada fended off San Marino, 486 points to 439, to lift the league championship and convincingly held off Damien, 336 to 235, for the Division II title.

On their way to the CIF title, Syrkin won the 50-yard freestyle in 20.38 seconds and also broke his own record in the 100-yard butterfly in 47.25.

The boys’ team also clocked in All-American marks in eight of the 11 events over the course of the season. Syrkin clocked in four national marks in his individual events and added All-American finishes in all three relays alongside Chris O’Grady, Eddie Cosic and Thomas Hoffman.

On the girls’ side, Alexandra Syrkin won a pair of Rio Hondo League championships in the 200 freestyle in 1:53.59 and the 100 butterfly in 57.18 to help La Cañada score 459 points and edge San Marino, which finished with 442.

In diving, Grace Lee sprung her way to state competition to finish eighth in the girls’ event.

As compelling a journey in the spring was the La Cañada baseball team.

After a season where the Spartans missed out on the playoffs, a strong pitching core backed by basketball standout Graves and USC-bound Connor Buchanan catapulted the program to uncharted territories in stunning fashion.

The pitchers, joined by Feehan from the basketball program, played a key part on the Spartans’ historic playoff run that ended at Dodger Stadium in the Division III championship against No. 4 Great Oak.

The playoff trail started with a 14-0 first-round shutout against Windward, a 2-1, nine-inning thriller against Warren and then another 2-1 nailbiter in 11 innings against Ocean View, all capped by a resounding 13-2 win at Oak Hills.

However, Great Oak used a big inning to claim the Division III title with a 7-0 victory over the Spartans.

La Cañada finished 22-8 with a second league title in three years. Graves, who will play baseball at San Jose State University, was named league MVP and senior pitcher and USC-bound Connor Buchanan was named league pitcher of the year. Both were also recognized with All-CIF first-team honors.

Graves ended his senior season with three complete games and one shutout in a 8-3 mark on 11 starts. He amounted 70 1/3 innings on the hill and recorded a 1.89 earned run average with 64 strikeouts, seven walks, 70 hits and 19 earned runs.

At the plate, Graves averaged .424 and drove in 16 runs, recorded 28 hits and scored 14 runs in 66 at-bats.

Buchanan was nearly unbeatable on the mound with a 0.76 ERA in 46 1/3 innings with three starts and five saves. He allowed five earned runs on 26 hits, struck out 60 and walked 14 for a 3-0 record.

The USC-bound pitcher was also a presence at the plate and hit .299, recorded 24 RBIs with 26 hits, including eight home runs. Buchanan also scored 33 runs and recorded seven stolen bases.

In track and field, Spartans junior David Miketta posted an impressive 15-feet clearance in the pole vault event at the CIF Southern Section Division III finals to claim the section’s title.

The Spartans softball team also took off on a playoff trip in the Division IV bracket after they secured their fifth consecutive Rio Hondo League title. Unfortunately, the run was cut short in the second round with a 2-1 defeat to South El Monte.

Junior pitcher Devyn Cox was awarded Rio Hondo League Pitcher of The Year with a 10-2 record and a 1.27 earned run average. Cox started all but one game and struck out 80 batters, yielded 56 hits, walked 23 and allowed 15 runs and home runs.

In boys’ tennis, Moravec led the Spartans (12-3) to a surprise appearance in the CIF Southern Section Division I quarterfinal, where La Cañada and fell to Sage Hill, 13-5. The Rio Hondo League runner-up also swept individual titles at the league finals. Spartans junior Ryan Morgan defended his singles crown and doubles teammates Ben Lee and Jack Manion captured their first league championship. The duo also extended their season to the round of 32 at the CIF Individual Tournament.

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vincent.nguyen@latimes.com

Twitter: @ReporterVince


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