PASADENA — There was going to be a huge late shift in momentum for either the La Cañada or Aliso Niguel high boys' water polo teams, as the Wolverines had a breakaway to the Spartans' goal with the game tied in the last 30 seconds of the third quarter.
"I just felt like I needed to stop it," La Cañada goalie Wolfie Paulson said. "If they would have scored there it would have changed the momentum of the game entirely."
Paulson went up to block the shot, which bounced off the right-cross bar and crossed in front of the cage to the left. Both teams battled for the ball, but La Cañada's Symeon Stefan came up with the steal after sprinting back to support Paulson.
"At first, I panicked because I thought it did go in," Paulson said. "I turned my head as fast as I could and I saw it didn't go in and I was ecstatic."
The Spartans (22-6) controlled the CIF Southern Section Division III quarterfinal playoff game the rest of the way, pulling out the 9-7 victory at Pasadena City College.
"Defensively, I thought we played very strong," La Cañada Coach Steve Neville said. "Seven goals against a very good team is pretty good. That's right around where we want to be."
La Cañada went on a 4-2 run in the final seven minutes and thirty seconds of the game, as the Spartans' Trevor Roszkos scored in the final 18 seconds of the third, giving his team a 6-5 edge going into the fourth quarter.
"I knew I had to come prepared because it's been our goal all season to at least make the semis," said Roszkos, who had a game-high five goals. "I just had to step up and do it for our guys."
The Wolverines (20-11) tied the game back up at 6 when Andy Santala scored on a five-meter shot with 4:24 to go in the game. Roszkos delivered again, netting his own five-meter shot 20 seconds later for a 7-6 lead. Aliso Niguel leveled the score at 7 when Cory Stock buried a deep shot with 3:48 to go.
La Cañada drew a man-advantage on its next possession and Alden Geller made it count with a goal for a 8-7 lead. Aliso Niguel drew a six-on-five opportunity on its ensuing possession, but came up short when Paulson blocked a shot from Santala, who had a team-high four goals (three coming on five-meter shots).
"We really didn't have an answer for him early on," Neville said. "He was pretty much one-handedly beating us."
Omar Khawaja put the game out of doubt for La Cañada, one-timing a pass from Allen Morovati into the top of the net on another man-advantage with 1:36 left in the game to seal a 9-7 victory.
"I had to score that to make us have a secure win," Khawaja said. "I knew we did it [after that goal]. This is the first time in five years we're going to the semifinals."
The Wolverines had an off-target and blocked shot by Paulson, who had 11 saves, in their final two possessions.
Momentum swung back and forth Saturday, as La Cañada went on a 3-1 run in the first quarter, only to see Aliso Niguel match it with a 3-1 run of its own in the second quarter. The Spartans enjoyed a 2-1 advantage in the third, both goals coming from Roszkos.
"[Roszkos] played great," Neville said. "As our senior captain, we really needed him to step up and put his shots away and he did exactly that."
Four other Spartans found the back of the net, as Stefan, Morovati, Geller and Khawaji all scored in the game. La Cañada's Peter Loakes had a team-high three steals.
Saturday's victory could likely set up a rematch between La Cañada and top-seeded Laguna Beach (which faced Mira Costa on the road Saturday) at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday at Irvine's William Wollett Jr. Aquatic Center in Irvine.
The Breakers defeated the Spartans in overtime, 14-11, at home on Oct. 11.
"Last time [against Laguna Beach], we felt like we got robbed," Roszkos said. "We felt like we had the victory. We are coming for some payback because we know that we can beat them."
Neville said his team will be ready for the semifinals.
"We have nothing to lose," Neville said. "This team has been through thick and thin together, they'll be ready."