LA CAÑADA —Not that the La Cañada girls’ soccer team needed extra motivation to win a match versus Rio Hondo League rival San Marino, but there were extraordinary implications in its regular season finale with the Titans on Thursday afternoon.
First and foremost, the Spartans were playing for the outright Rio Hondo League championship three days after clinching at least a share of the league title — their first since the 2010-2011 season.
Moreover, an undefeated season was at stake for the host Spartans. And lastly, perhaps a top-two seed in the CIF Division V playoffs was to be determined at the conclusion of the match with San Marino, the defending league champions.
Ultimately, La Cañada, ranked No. 2 in the division, didn’t falter, and instead overcame the pressure to make quick work of the Titans with three goals in the first half en route to a 3-1 victory that clinches the Rio Hondo League title outright and has the Spartans as the top seed of the CIF Division V playoffs.
Spartans Coach Louie Bilowitz addressed the La Cañada faithful after the match, praising his squad and particularly his seniors for being instrumental in the program’s first-ever undefeated campaign.
“We were hungry,” said Bilowitz about the team’s mindset coming into the match. “We worked on some new defensive tactics — things I haven’t shown them before and they paid off today. They responded well, did it, and we shut their offense down.”
La Cañada (18-0-1, 9-0-1) defeated San Marino, 2-1, earlier in the season on Jan. 29. It was previously the only setback in league play for San Marino (12-5-2, 7-2-1), and a split of the season series would not only mean the teams sharing the league title, but also a coin toss in the coming days to determine the top seed in the upcoming playoffs.
The Spartans, however, ranked No. 2 in the division during the regular season, made sure to prevail in the task at hand, and avoid things being out of their control.
“We’re always pumped to play San Marino,” Spartans senior co-captain Olivia Leyva said. “They’re always competitive and we’re probably the two most competitive teams in our league. We work hard each year to achieve our goals, and beating San Marino is one of them.”
The center defender delivered a nice ball that split two San Marino defenders and found Cassy Quiring in stride and, with the Titans keeper the only defender between her and the match’s first goal just four minutes into the contest.
Quiring dribbled the ball deep into the box, forcing Elizabeth Hannan to meet her. La Cañada’s left winger took advantage and struck the ball past Hannan to give the Spartans an early 1-0 lead.
“I saw that I could run with the ball and I saw Cassy running down the line ahead of their defender, so I said ‘Why not?’” said Leyva about her accurate ball, sent from midfield to Quiring’s foot.
Quiring’s effort and the team’s aggressive attack were rewarded again with a second goal in the 22nd minute. Megan Decker led a break deep in San Marino’s territory, which led to a shot on goal that was not corralled by Hannan. The loose ball was cleaned up by a darting Quiring for a 2-0 advantage.
Leyva picked up a goal after Quiring was taken down by Hannan and a foul was called, resulting in a free kick from 28 yards out. Leyva capitalized and powered a ball out of the keeper’s reach and into the back of the net for a daunting 3-0 lead.
“Cassy, she’s amazing, and she’s a fighter,” Bilowitz said about his junior. “You see her: She’s the smallest girl with the biggest heart.”
Hannan made a pair of key saves in the second half, most notably in the 74th minute when Decker found herself one-on-one with the Titans keeper. Unfortunately for San Marino, they couldn’t muster anything against La Cañada’s keeper Kaitlyn Coral and the Spartans defense until the 77th minute when Alana Hillman put the Titans on the scoreboard. It was too little, too late, however.
“She’s the difference between a 3-0 or a 6-0,” Titans Coach Jaime Acuna said. “Every good team starts with a keeper, and we have ours. She’ll be key in the playoffs.
“Only thing we can do is learn from this. The lesson being that we can’t get into an early hole and expect to dig ourselves out of it.”
Both squads will look for continued success in the postseason. “Five more wins,” as Bilowitz said.