CORONA – An emotionally-charged boys’ water polo match that included several exclusions, two ejections and a yellow card also consisted of two fundamental truths for La Cañada High on Saturday afternoon.
The visiting No. 7-ranked Spartans surrendered five straight goals early and never recovered, falling to second-seeded Corona Santiago, 11-6, in the quarterfinals of the CIF Southern Section Division III playoffs.
With the defeat, the Rio Hondo League champion Spartans concluded their season with a 21-10 record, while the Big VIII League champion Sharks (23-8) exacted revenge from last year’s 19-7 quarterfinal defeat and advanced to the program’s first-ever semifinal appearance.
“The only thing you can really say is what happened, which is that the first quarter killed us,” Spartans first-year Coach Christian Flores said. “If you look at the game after that, it’s a 6-6 tie the rest of the way. That’s the part that’s frustrating.”
Such frustration boiled over for the Spartans at the 2:21 point in the third quarter with La Cañada trailing, 8-3.
Spartans senior Peter Loakes and junior Leo Neat became entangled with Corona’s Preston Perkins, which led to shoving from both sides and an eventual stoppage of play by the game’s officials.
After a short break, all three players were issued exclusions, which led to third-ejection expulsions of Perkins and Loakes and a temporary kick-out of Neat (one goal and three steals).
While La Cañada momentarily fed off the controversy with a goal from Connor Shankwiller (two goals and one steal), thanks to an assist from Reed Buck, with 2:02 remaining to bring the Spartans within 8-4, the loss of Loakes proved damaging.
“Hey, that was a fair trade for them. I don’t know if it was coached or the players did it on their own, but they attacked our vulnerable guys and they got that double exclusion,” said Flores, who was assessed a yellow card with 2:57 remaining in the game. “Peter is a big part of our offense and it was a bigger loss for us.”
Santiago reestablished its five-goal advantage with a score from Corey Durham with 1:13 left in the quarter before La Cañada rallied for a score from Soloman Chang before the conclusion of the third in pulling within 9-5.
Whatever vision the Spartans had of a fourth-quarter comeback fizzled into the overcast sky of Corona as the Spartans committed five turnovers in the final period and scored only one goal from senior two-meter attack Jeff Moh with exactly two minutes left.
Overall, the Spartans surrendered the fourth quarter, 2-1.
“Even with the loss, I’m proud of what we accomplished this season in overcoming a lot of setbacks,” said Spartans senior goalie Jeff Lee, who finished with eight saves and two steals.
“We lost some players this season and we had some new coaches and we still won league and got this far.”
The game appeared in danger of becoming a rout when Santiago scored on five straight possessions in the first quarter in taking a 5-0 lead after a goal from Tanner Shore with 57 seconds remaining.
Shore, a focal point of the Spartans’ defense, fueled the early surge with two goals and one assist, much to the chagrin of Flores.
“We came out with a game plan to shut down [Shore] and he ends up scoring two or three goals right away,” Flores said. “I called a timeout because we weren’t in it and that killed us.”
La Cañada eventually scored its first goal of the game at the 3:27 mark of the second quarter on a six-on-five chance cashed in by Moh (two goals, two steals and one assist).
The score proved an unfortunate rarity for the Spartans, who finished four for 10 in man-advantage opportunities, while Santiago was six for 10.
“We had our chances and we didn’t take advantage,” Flores said. “Take away the first quarter and it’s a different game.”