Entering the season, the question La Cañada High girls' soccer Coach Louie Bilowitz wanted answered was how his underclassmen would respond to playing at the varsity level.
It seemed to be an easy adjustment for the Spartans, who tied for second place in the Rio Hondo League and advanced to the CIF Southern Section Division VI quarterfinals with a 13-3-4 (5-1-4 in league) record.
La Cañada received a boost from the play of its six freshmen and eight sophomores, but it was the contributions of seniors Talia Saleh and Haley Austin that stood out most when it came time for all-league voting.
The pair took home the highest honors for La Cañada with Saleh being named one of the league’s three most valuable defensive players of the year as a midfielder and Austin nabbing the co-goalkeeper of the year award.
“I knew I won an award, but I didn’t know it was co-defensive,” said Saleh, who was a little surprised as she sees herself as an offensive player. “It is a little weird, but it’s awesome nonetheless.”
Saleh, who Bilowitz refers to as the team’s quarterback, is La Cañada’s all-time assist leader in three years with the team.
"She isn't the big scorer, but the play goes through her," Bilowitz said. "She distributes the ball and creates the movement for the offense."
Saleh closed out her senior year with seven goals and a team-high 21 assists after breaking the school's single-season assists record with 31 as a junior.
"I view passing, assisting and making plays as my job," Saleh said. "I take so much pleasure in viewing the field and looking for those through balls and the different passing opportunities."
Austin anchored La Cañada's defense in net and was surprised to hear she'd received the award, but Bilowitz wasn't.
"We have a young and inexperienced team, especially in the back and having a goalie like [Austin] gives the defense confidence and lets them know they didn't have to be afraid to make a mistake," he said.
La Cañada also had three first-teamers in Kara Lankey, Natalie Ragusa and Megan Decker.
Lankey, a junior, was key to the Spartans defense at center back.
"Kara was probably the most dominant player we had this year. She in my opinion was the best defender in the league," Bilowitz said. "The center backs, especially Kara, really controlled the defense. We didn't give up many goals or even shots."
When it came to offense, the Spartans got a boost from their freshmen, Ragusa and Decker.
"They are probably, since I have been at the school, both in the top five as far as talent goes coming into the school as freshmen," Bilowitz said. "It's hard to imagine how dominant they will be as seniors. They should be amazing seniors."
Ragusa, a midfielder, had eight goals and 17 assists this season. Decker, whose primary position is at left defender, racked up a team-high 17 goals and 11 assists despite playing forward for the first time ever this year, Bilowitz said.
The Spartans picked up three second-team members in senior midfielder Morgan Rittichier (seven goals and seven assists),and sophomores Brianna Albarian, a defensive midfielder, and Olivia Leyva, a center defender.
Austin couldn't say enough about the play of her defense.
"My defenders would come in with amazing slide tackles that would get the ball off or that would save a shot before I even had to get to it," Austin said. "I hardly had to touch it actually. It sure made my job a hell of a lot easier."
La Cañada freshman midfielder Cassandra Quiring (two goals, four assists) and sophomore defender Eloise Dimase-Nordling were both all-league honorable mentions.