SOUTH PASADENA — Whenever the La Cañada and South Pasadena high boys' water polo teams meet up, both squads prepare for their biggest test of the Rio Hondo League season.
"South Pasadena always comes with a big crowd and it's always a contentious game, no matter what," La Cañada's two-meter Bryce Hopkins said of the rivalry. "It's their home court and it's always competitive."
Put a league title on the line, like it was when the Spartans traveled to South Pasadena Tuesday, and the pressure mounts.
After a slow start, La Cañada was able to put all that out of mind and run away with a 13-5 victory for its second straight league title. South Pasadena clinched second place in league. A victory over La Cañada would have given the Tigers at least a share of the league title, and possibly all of it if the Spartans fell to San Marino Thursday in a major upset.
"We started off the way we did last time against South Pas, really slow," La Cañada Coach Steve Neville said. "Both teams are playing for a league championship and we're at South Pas. Emotions are high and you never know how they're going to start a game like this."
Defense was a game changer for La Cañada (19-6, 7-0 in league), ranked fourth in CIF Southern Section Division III, as it converted seven of South Pasadena's 15 turnovers into goals. The Tigers (16-11, 5-2 in league), ranked ninth in Division III, scored off one of the 10 turnovers committed by the Spartans.
Down a man, La Cañada's defense still found a way to keep South Pasadena out of the cage, as the Tigers only scored on one of their seven six-on-five opportunities.
"We just didn't put our six-on-fives away, bottom line," South Pasadena Coach Robert Echeverria. "We had like seven or eight ejections and we scored on one. We put those away and it's a different ball game."
Peter Loakes was a big part of La Cañada's defense and offense Tuesday, grabbing two steals and scoring two goals in the game.
"That's hard to do [not give up goals on six-on-fives]," Loakes said. "We stopped everyone of them except for one, I feel pretty good about that."
Echeverria said his offense just wasn't clicking Tuesday.
"Our offense wasn't putting the ball away," he said. "If you get that many ejections your defense wasn't very good. …With that many ejections you should win the game, but we didn't. They were just the better team today."
The Tigers came out strong in the first quarter, scoring the first goal of the match when Pierce Deamer found the back of the net about four minutes into the game. La Cañada's goalkeeper, Wolfie Paulson, kept the game close with three saves in the first quarter. He finished with seven overall.
La Cañada's offense found some rhythm late in the opening quarter and took a 2-1 lead into the second quarter thanks to goals from Trevor Roszkos and Symeon Stefan in the last with 2:30 left in the opening quarter.
"They started showing some life at the end of the first quarter," Neville said. "I told them to keep up that momentum and let's get up on them quickly to put them in a bad position."
Neville's squad did just that, taking control of the game with a 6-1 run in the second quarter for a 7-2 halftime lead. La Cañada's defense shut the Tigers out in the third quarter and scored three more times on offense, taking a 10-2 lead into the fourth.
The Tigers came out strong in the fourth quarter, as Deamer and Lis each added a goal to finish with a team-high two goals each. Deamer's first goal of the fourth quarter came off a five-meter opportunity. Paulson saved the shot, but Deamer got his own rebound and put it away with 5:31 left in the game. Lis added another goal about two minutes later to cut the lead to 10-4.
The Tigers finished the scoring with a last-second goal from Adrian Suarez bringing the score to 13-5, after three straight La Cañada goals.
Roszkos and Stefan finished with a match-high three goals each. A total of six Spartans scored in the game, though, as Hopkins and Loakes both scored twice for La Cañada in the match.
Neville said it felt good to win the league title, but he knows winning a Division III championship is the primary goal.
"It hasn't really hit me that we won the league title, but it's just one step closer to our ultimate goal," Neville said.
South Pasadena can now focus all its attention for the playoffs.
"We have to work on the little things, our six-on-fives and putting the ball away," Echeverria said. "It's going back to basics. We'll be fine."