Odds immediately swung in favor of the Crescenta Valley High boys' soccer team when Pavle Atanackovic controlled the ball.
Using his gifted strength and speed, Atanackovic provided a buzz on the field — and for the spectators lined up on the sidelines — each time he launched a shot on goal. He found a way to score timely goals and played a vital role in helping Crescenta Valley win the CIF Southern Section Division IV championship this season.
"Players like Pavle certainly don't grow on trees, and he's a special player," said Crescenta Valley Coach Grant Clark, whose team finished 23-1-6 and 12-0-2 in the Pacific League. "If you didn't see a game he played, then you missed a whole lot of excitement.
"He could score just about any way. He's that rare kind of player who is big, strong and quick all at the same time. He could dish out and take a lot while playing physical and that also took him to the next level."
Backed by a well-rounded team, Atanackovic, a senior forward, and the Falcons reached new heights. Atanackovic finished with a school-record and area-leading 39 goals and 87 points. He added six goals in the postseason, which ended with the Falcons advancing to the CIF Southern California Regional Division I championship match.
It is because of those accomplishments that Atanackovic has been chosen the 2012 All-Area Boys' Soccer Player of the Year by the editors and sports writers of the Glendale News-Press, Burbank Leader, La Cañada Valley Sun and Pasadena Sun. It marked the second season in a row that Atanackovic earned the accolade.
Atanackovic finished with five hat tricks, with his final one coming in a 3-2 first-round playoff victory against Laguna Beach. The Falcons trailed, 2-0, at halftime before the UC Irvine-bound Atanackovic scored two second-half goals. He then scored the winner early in overtime off a free kick by Alex Berger.
That proved to be a pivotal moment for the Falcons, who steadily gained momentum throughout the rest of their historic playoff journey. Third-seeded Crescenta Valley then marched to the title with one-goal victories against Diamond Bar, Salesian and Oak Hills before posting a 3-0 win against top-seeded El Rancho in the championship match March 2 at Warren High in Downey.
With the bulk of the team returning following a trip to the quarterfinals in 2011, Atanackovic said he believed the Falcons were a serious championship-caliber team in 2012. All the pieces appeared to be in place, from a steady goalkeeper to a reliable defense and midfield.
Atanackovic's hunch become reality, though the quest for the title began last summer for him.
"I practiced extra hard over last summer and worked out and improved my conditioning six days a week," said Atanackovic, who was selected to the All-CIF Division IV and all-league first teams. "I got a lot faster and in better shape so I could hold the ball a lot longer.
"Our goal before the season began was to take CIF. Nobody in team history had done it before and we believed every game that we were going to do it. We had to stay together and stay calm throughout every obstacle."
After tying its first two league matches, Crescenta Valley closed out the regular season with 12 straights victories. That set the tone for the postseason. After Atanackovic's hat trick against Laguna Beach, he scored the winning goal late in the second half to give the Falcons a 1-0 second-round victory against Diamond Bar.
In a quarterfinal match against host Salesian, things appeared bleak for the Falcons. Salesian held a 2-1 lead in the 12th and final minute of stoppage time before Clark pulled Ruiz from the goal. Crescenta Valley's Eric Trejo threw the ball in to Salar Hajimirsadeghi. The ball then deflected to Atanackovic before Ruiz scored on a 15-yard shot just before regulation ended. Trejo won the game early in overtime.
"That was a total miracle," Atanackovic. "So many things happened leading up to Nick's goal and then we won in overtime.
"That game in itself was quite an accomplishment."
Against Oak Hills in a semifinal match, Atanackovic scored on a penalty shot in the second half to give the Falcons a 1-0 lead. Oak Hills tied it at 1 midway through the second half before Crescenta Valley prevailed, 5-3, on penalty kicks.
Against El Rancho, Atanackovic provided a second-half insurance goal to help lead the Falcons to a 3-0 win against El Rancho in the championship match.
"The El Rancho game was amazing," Atanackovic said. "We played so well, especially with our defense.
"Then we raised the championship plaque and it was so hard to believe at first. It's the greatest moment at CV for the soccer program. Everybody was on the same page and we accomplished so much."
The Falcons picked up wins against Clovis Buchanan and top-seeded Long Beach Millikan in the Southern California Regionals before suffering a 2-1 loss to Paramount in the championship contest.
Clark said Atanackovic found numerous ways to register big goals throughout the postseason for the Falcons.
"I've seen him develop two years as a striker," Clark said. "You could see him look to get open and get off that clean shot and he did it so often throughout the regular season and in the playoffs."
Atanackovic's body of work was also recognized by opposing coaches, including Mike Kodama of Burroughs.
Kodama saw Atanackovic pick up a hat trick against Burroughs in the Falcons' 7-0 Pacific League win on Jan. 10.
"He's a great finisher," said Kodama, whose team finished second in league. "He can score when there isn't much room and players like that are hard to find.
"He's able to score because he constantly gets himself in the right position. If there's an opening, he's gone."