Falcon players and coaches reflect on winning water polo’s first Southern Section title.
By Brandon HENSLEY
As the seconds expired on the game clock, Crescenta Valley High School water polo coach Brent Danna jumped up and down, until he couldn’t jump anymore. So as the clock hit zero he somersaulted into the pool, followed by his players on the bench, who unleashed their robes and jumped in to join the celebration.
Danna sported a shirt that read “I (heart) my team,” with the symbol of a heart that was bleeding red once he emerged from the water.
The color of the day, though, was undoubtedly Falcon blue.
At long last, the girls’ water polo team has their CIF championship, winning the Southern Section Division V title against Riverside Poly 10-5 last Saturday in Irvine.
It was the hardest game the Falcons won in the playoffs, but the victory was done the same way as all the other ones – with tough defense and a balanced scoring attack that let everyone know this championship was a total team effort.
“It feels amazing,” said senior Katie Benson. “It’s absolutely incredible to know that I will forever cherish this moment and that all of my hard work and our hard work went to a purpose.”
Benson scored three goals against Riverside, including the one goal that probably put the game away, receiving a long pass from Breanna Lawton and putting it past goalkeeper Madelynn Knust for an 8-4 lead with 4:30 left in the game.
A couple minutes later, Elissa Arnold lobbed one over Knust for a 9-4 lead, and the celebration was on … almost.
“I was extremely secure in my mind that our defense can hold up, we have this, we’re mentally ready to finish this our way,” Arnold said of the last few minutes.
Although Arnold is a junior, her comments during the playoffs told the tale of someone just as motivated to win a title as an outgoing senior.
“It was more of a need than a want,” she said.
That’s because the Falcons have been saddled with disappointment recently. Despite the wins, the Pacific League championships – four consecutive, and counting – this was the program’s first ever trip the CIF finals. CV had lost its four overall trips to the semifinals, the last two coming in 2011 and 2012.
For the six seniors on the team, including Lawton, winning this one had special meaning.
“Definitely. Senior year is by far the best now,” said Lawton. “The last two years, building up that urge to win, it finally exploded this season.”
Boy, did it. The Falcons went 33-2 overall, undefeated in league. They outscored their opponents in the postseason 50-19. They so dominated teams that first-year coach Danna acknowledged the lopsidedness of the games sometimes irked opposing fans and coaches.
But what was he going to do? He talked about the subject days before the playoffs started, and said this was how his team played; hard and aggressive, and he didn’t want put the reins on any of his players.
Instead, this season would be the coming out party for CV – and also for the 28-year-old Danna, who played water polo at El Toro High School but never won the big one.
“I’ve been going after a CIF title since my freshman year in high school. So it’s like 14 years,” he said.
After the Falcons’ 14-4 semifinal win over Redlands East Valley, Danna had a couple of days to think about what could happen against Riverside.
“I was excited on Wednesday. I was nervous as hell on Thursday and Friday,” he said. “But on Friday at practice when the girls showed up and got in the water, I wasn’t very nervous anymore.”
If goalie Gabriel Isacson wasn’t on her game, Danna’s anxiety might have reoccurred. But with the championship on the line, Isacson was at her best, recording 17 saves. She stopped one of two penalty shots and several other shots from close range from Riverside’s Julie Swieca and Paizlee Dreyer.
With CV having its lowest scoring output of the playoffs, Isacson’s play was needed.
“Gabriel I think is MVP of the tournament, of the team, of the past three years,” said Arnold. “She’s amazing. Best goalie I’ve seen by far. Even in practice. She doesn’t even try and she blocks everything.”
Riverside went physical on the Falcons, especially with CV junior Ashley Taylor, who ended up leading the team with 13 playoff goals. Taylor grinded out a three-goal performance, including a penalty shot score in the third quarter that increased her team’s lead to 5-2.
“As a player, you have to put your mind away from that,” Taylor said of the rough play. “You have to go out there for your team and push as hard as you can.”
Taylor was giddy during the celebration.
“Now it’s real. It actually happened. We’re CIF champs and we made history forever,” she said.
The bittersweet part of it concerns the girls’ former coach, Pete Loporchio, who moved on to L.A. Valley College last year, paving the way for Danna, who was the boys’ team assistant at the time.
Loporchio was supportive throughout this year’s run, and said he was able to work with Isacson a little bit in a recent practice.
“It’s very emotional for me and it’s hard to put into words what it means for the program,” said Loporchio. “I know the school motto is pride, tradition and honor and I think Coach Danna has done a great job in carrying on that tradition with the girls.”
Hair was let down, and hugs from family and friends were given while the team took too many photos to count with the championship plaque. Benson, who will play at Cal State Bakersfield next year, said her initial feeling was, “Did we really do this? Did this really happen?”
For Loporchio, for the girls who graduated last year, and for the players in Falcon navy blue on a chilly Saturday night down in Irvine, yes, it really happened.
“Now those girls are going to be CIF champions for the rest of their lives and there’s going to be that plaque and a banner in the gym until that gym comes down,” said Danna. “That’s something special that the girls wanted and were able to get and I’m just glad to be a part of the ride.”
Don’t forget about the jewelry, said Benson.
“I’ll forever wear that ring. It’s going to be awesome.”