Every high school team has high hopes before the season — some realistic, some maybe not so much.
Every high school player has those hopes as well.
La Cañada High junior soccer player Megan Decker was no different and neither were her Spartans.
But Decker and her teammates had no prognostications of making school history.
“All of us definitely wanted to win league,” Decker recalls. “From the beginning of the season, we knew we were a good team, but I don’t know if we thought we were get-to-CIF good.”
But for the first time in program history, the La Cañada High girls’ soccer team was that good.
The Spartans sprinted into the postseason following an unbeaten regular season that included an impressive run to the Rio Hondo League championship. Win after dramatic win followed in a memorable postseason that culminated with La Cañada reaching its first-ever CIF Southern Section championship match.
It was Decker who led the team offensively as a forward, and fortified the Spartans defensively, as well. Just as impactful was the passion in which she played the game, helping to solidify a team energy and chemistry that proved as important as any goal, assist or save.
“It was very contagious,” said Spartans Coach Louie Bilowitz of Decker’s enthusiasm for the game. “I don’t know if I’ve ever coached a team with better chemistry than this one. This team was like a family. They enjoyed each other so much — it was a joy to be there for me.
“I think that’s one of the reasons this team has done more than any other La Cañada team. … This was a team. And people like Megan Decker are a key reason why. She’s just wonderful.”
Whether on offense or defense, with statistics or intangibles, Decker, the Rio Hondo League Most Valuable Player and an All-CIF Southern Section Division V first-team selection, contributed in every way imaginable to lead the Spartans to success beyond their imaginations. Thus, La Cañada’s junior standout was voted the 2014 All-Area Girls’ Soccer Player of the Year by the sports staff of the La Cañada Valley Sun, Glendale News-Press and Burbank Leader.
Indeed, the past season for Decker and the Spartans was one brimming with impressive numbers, both historical and statistical, culminating with a 22-1-1 record and a first-ever berth in the CIF Southern Section Division V championship.
Decker was the catalyst for the offense, scoring 16 goals and passing for 16 assists in a magnificent showing of offensive balance.
“She was our main offensive player,” said La Cañada senior All-Area and All-CIF senior Olivia Leyva, adding that as a junior, Decker took on a leadership role, as well, particularly with the offense. “If something was wrong, she would calm everybody down.
“She held up the entire offense.”
This was no more apparent than in the postseason, as the Spartans, who outscored their first four playoff foes, 9-1, were led by Decker. She scored three goals and had two assists, scoring game-winning goals against California in the second round and Hemet in the semifinals, while notching a game-tying tally in the quarterfinals against Sage Hill.
“She has a great touch. Because she has a great touch, she has a great shot. She makes great passes,” Spartans sophomore forward Olivia Juse said. “She just knows the game really well.”
Impressive and balanced as Decker’s final statistics were, they could’ve likely been far greater, but it was her versatility that was instead showcased rather than her statistical splendor.
A defender on her club team, Decker was often moved back from forward to solidify the defense when La Cañada grabbed a lead in a tight match.
“She would have a lot more goals if I left her in front the whole game,” Bilowitz says. “She’s a lockdown defender.
“She really solidified the defense and, on offense, she’s really the key to my offense.”
Bilowitz’ strategy and Decker’s ability was exemplified in the 2-0 CIF semifinal win over Hemet.
First, Decker scored a goal that would stand as the game-winner, and then Bilowitz moved her back on defense to lock down a shutout and the program’s first trip to the CIF championship.
“He would put her back when we needed to clinch a win,” Leyva says.
Though Leyva led the defense, Decker certainly played a vital role in helping the Spartans close out 15 shutouts and allowed just 11 goals in 24 matches.
While playing defender on the left side is a natural fit for Decker, her opportunity to lead the way on the Spartans’ offense was a welcomed opportunity.
“In all honesty, it’s kind of fun,” says Decker, who had 17 goals and 19 assists for the Spartans as a sophomore, garnering first-team all-league and second-team All-Area honors. “In club, I watch the forwards. In high school, I get a chance to be one of them and take things into my own hands for once.”
But for her coach and teammates, it’s truly Decker’s love for playing the game that is most memorable, just as much as the Spartans’ overall chemistry was just as important, if not more so to the team’s success than its talent.
“I had so much fun,” Decker says. “Every single person on the team got along; there was no drama. Everybody was really into it for soccer. Everybody was into it for fun.”
Said Juse: “It’s not just fun, it’s her passion for the game and you can see it on the field.”
For all of Decker’s talents, it is indeed the manner in which she plays that Bilowitz describes first and foremost when asked about his star player’s attributes.
“Very high-level [player], but the best thing about Megan Decker is she is the first player I’ve coached in a long, long time that I just watch her play,” Bilowitz said. “You can see in her face the joy and the passion she has playing out there. She just has such a passion for playing the game; it’s such a beautiful thing to see.
“She’s a joy to have around. You can see the passion. She loves this game.”
And there was much to love during her junior season.
“I mean, I was excited for the season, just like any other, but it wasn’t anything different,” Decker said. “Once we started building up confidence as we were winning games and building chemistry … it was a different feeling from last season.
“We wanted to win for each other.”
It was a mantra that drove the Spartans all the way to the finals, where they came up agonizingly short of a CIF championship, losing to St. Margaret’s in overtime, 1-0, after a controversial penalty kick. Still, it was a season that wildly exceeded expectations.
So, while the 2013-14 season began like any other in many respects for the Spartans, it certainly didn’t conclude as such. Thus, when the 2014-15 campaign inches closer, Decker believes everything will have changed thanks to what her and her teammates were able to accomplish.
“For us and our school,” Decker says. “Because we know we are capable and we know now what it’s like. We know it’s not out of our reach.”
Follow Grant Gordon on Twitter: @TCNGrantGordon.