Late header saves game for Spartans

LA CAÑADA FLINTRIDGE — It was the first varsity goal for Aidan Tourani of the La Can¿ada High boys' soccer team and did it ever come at the right time.

Down a goal with four minutes to go, the Spartans earned a corner kick and sent everyone — including the goalkeeper — up the field. Tourani got there first and headed the ball into the top left corner of the box, on a bounce, to notch the equalizer in a 2-2 tie with South Pasadena Tuesday.

“When I walked up to the box I felt a connection and I knew the corner was going to come to me,” said Tourani, a junior defender for La Cañada who got the goal off a pass from Armand Bagramyan. “I didn’t think it went in, but when I got up everybody was cheering and I was like, ‘No way.’”

The tie keeps the Spartans (13-5-4, 6-0-3 in league) undefeated in the Rio Hondo League and on top of the league standings with one game left in the regular season with league-rival Monrovia (18-7-3, 6-1-2) Tuesday at 3:30 p.m.

A La Cañada victory or draw at Monrovia Thursday will give the Spartans, ranked fifth in CIF Southern Section Division V, the league crown for the third year in a row and 22nd overall.

Both teams came in hungry for a win Tuesday at La Cañada, but both coaches were content with the result as the late goal saved La Can¿ada Coach Alex Harrison from a loss.

“Honestly, whatever keeps us alive in first right now,” Harrison said. “We didn’t play the way we should have — we weren’t aggressive or first to the ball enough — but in the overall scheme of this we needed that tie to keep going, otherwise we’re in trouble.”

South Pasadena Coach Juan Zurita was also pleased after seeing his team improve from its 4-2 loss to the Spartans at home on Jan. 18.

“They could’ve done better, but La Cañada also stepped up and brought some pressure,” Zurita said. “We came [out] a little different then we did in the first round. We came out and tried to be a little more aggressive and that’s how we got those two goals.”

It looked like the Tigers (10-3-4, 5-2-2) notched the game-winner as Steven Blackwell put South Pas in front, 2-1, in the 62nd minute off a corner kick from Zack Dunn.

“I took two steps to draw the defender away from me and then I sprinted forward and that gave me space,” Blackwell said. “The closest person was maybe two yards away. I went for it.”

Both teams traded goals all day as South Pasadena opened the scoring in the 54th minute on a goal from Mathewos Grebrekristos.

Grebrekristos sent a slow-rolling shot to his teammate Cody Dunn, who was standing with his back to the goal. Dunn let the ball go through his legs and to the Spartans goalkeeper, who wasn't expecting the shot as it went through his arms and legs for a Tigers goal.

“The difference today was our attitude,” Blackwell said. “It played a big part because in the first game we came in like, ‘Ah crap, La Cañada we’re going to lose.’ This time we knew we were the better team so we came out hard.”

Bagramyan knotted the score four minutes later when he slipped past the Tigers back line and took a pass from La Can¿ada's Garrett Apel. South Pas goalie Daniel Ruatta ran out and slid to grab the ball but Bagramyan fired the shot off him as it rolled into the back of the net to tie the game at 1.

It was the first Spartans goal after they had a number of scoring opportunities in the first half. La Can¿ada had nine of its 15 shots in the first half, forcing Ruatta to make all five of his saves in the first 40 minutes.

Bagramyan created a flurry of goal opportunities for La Can¿ada in the 13th minute when he took a through pass from Apel and worked his way around two defenders before lifting a shot that was just tapped up and out of play off the top crossbar by Ruatta.

The Spartans created four corner kicks in a row after that, but failed to score on any of them as both teams went into the half without a goal.

“We should have been up 2 or 3-0,” Harrison said. “We had three quality shots inside the six-yard box they should have put away. It would have been over. It just wasn’t good enough. I expect more from the boys, but I am just happy we saved it from a loss.”

The Tigers went into halftime with three shots, none on goal, to their name in the first but shuffled their formation to finish the game with 14 shots, five on target.

“The boys know they can beat La Cañada and we were close,” Zurita said. “We are coming in very strong to the playoffs [with wins over Temple City, Blair and San Marino], but it would have been nice to get the win to compensate the [earlier] loss [to La Cañada].”

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