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Elissa Arnold, Crescenta Valley High girls' water polo maintain tradition of greatness

To look at the body of work compiled by the Crescenta Valley High girls’ water polo team this past season is to grab a snapshot of another successful campaign for the area’s top program.

The Falcons finished 24-7, captured a fifth straight Pacific League championship and advanced to the semifinals of the CIF Southern Section Division V playoffs for a fourth consecutive season.

Such success has become consistent and expected at a program that rose to prominence under coach Pete Loporchio and reached its pinnacle with Brent Danna at the helm.

Yet, perhaps to chalk up the 2013-14 season as just another great season is to ignore one of the program’s uniquely successful years.

“I couldn't really say what our expectations were heading into this year,” said Danna, who’s coached the Falcons the last two seasons. “We naturally set our expectations high, but honestly we lost some great players to graduation and then arguably our best player, as well.”

Expectations varied for Crescenta Valley entering the 2013-14 season.

The Falcons cemented their legitimacy as an area power by winning the program's first-ever CIF Southern Section Division V championship in February of 2013.

However, the majority of a senior-laden starting squad, which included All-Area Player of the Year Gabriel Isacson and All-Area players Katie Benson and Breana Lawton, graduated.

Throw in the unexpected loss of All-Area first-teamer Shannon Hovanesian before the beginning of the season for personal reasons and a team looking to defend its crown suddenly appeared vulnerable.

“It was an interesting dynamic,” Falcons senior Lynley Fernandez said. “There were some people who expected us to be amazing like the previous years and others who didn’t think the girls returning would be able to fill the void.”

Only two starters from the title team returned, one being senior center Elissa Arnold.

“I really didn’t know what to think before the season started,” Arnold said. “It’s hard losing one great player let alone all the seniors who led the team to a championship. To take over for someone like Shannon shifted my personal expectations and those of the team. I think our goal heading into this season was to go as far as we possibly could.”

Arnold shouldered the load as both a team leader and top player, pacing the Falcons with a squad-best 92 goals, which merited the University of Michigan-bound senior Pacific League Player of the Year honors, a CIF Southern Section Division V first-team pick and selection as the 2014 All-Area Girls’ Water Polo Player of the Year by the sportswriters of the Glendale News-Press, Burbank Leader and La Cañada Valley Sun.

“Elissa is more than deserving,” Danna said. “She’s the ultimate leader with a work ethic that’s second to none. She’s one of the girls I never had to worry about giving 100% in practice. In all honesty, she was irreplaceable.”

Point to any big game on the schedule and Arnold more than made her impact.

Perhaps the biggest nonleague statement came on Jan. 15, as the Division V second-ranked Falcons traveled to Harvard-Westlake, which was ranked No. 2 in Division III.

While much of the attention in the pool focused on the one-on-one matchup between Crescenta Valley’s Ashley Taylor and Harvard-Westlake’s Sydney Cheong, Arnold’s big role was as distributor that day.

Taylor led the team with seven goals, while Arnold tallied three goals and five assists and had a hand in the final four goals of what was an impressive 15-9 victory.

“Elissa always put the team first and she was an incredible player and teammate,” Fernandez said. “She’s not out there saying, ‘I’m never going to get my shot’ or ‘Pass me the ball.’ She was looking at ways to improve her teammates so that the team would ultimately improve.”

In the Falcons’ first matchup with upstart Glendale on Jan. 30, Arnold found another way to spark her teammates.

The Nitros took a surprising 4-2 lead after one quarter, but were held without a goal in the second quarter and went scoreless for more than 12 minutes thanks in part to Arnold, who led the team with six steals to accompany her four goals and three assists.

Both Glendale and Crescenta Valley met up a couple of weeks later in the Pacific League championship on Feb. 13 at Burbank High in a game in which Arnold and Co. romped to a 13-1 victory behind her four goals and six steals. The win sealed the Falcons a fifth straight league title.

“I think what people don’t realize about Elissa, outside of her amazing athletic talent, is her ability to lead others,” Glendale co-Coach Forest Holbrook said. “That’s her best attribute – she’s a second coach in the pool.

“Whenever we tried to rattle a player or run something counter to what Crescenta Valley was doing, she was right there making adjustments. They didn’t need a timeout with her out there.”

Interestingly, Arnold questioned her own ability to lead before the season.

“At the beginning of the season, I really think chemistry was a serious issue for us,” Arnold said. “As for leadership, I just wanted to have a presence in the pool and make good decisions. I think that’s how players trust you.”

In the postseason, Arnold led the team with four goals in an opening-round 13-3 victory over Downey on Feb. 19.

That win came before an 11-4 defensive masterpiece against host Temescal Canyon in the divisional quarterfinals on Feb. 22 in which Arnold tallied two goals, two steals and one assist.

Eventually, a season and a personal four-year run of excellence for Arnold ended on Feb. 26 when the Falcons fell to top-seeded Warren, 16-9, in the semifinals at Whittier College.

“We got into foul trouble early and I didn’t play one of my better games,” Arnold said. “That loss hurts not because we didn’t win, but because we didn’t play our best.”

When told of Arnold’s reaction, Danna chuckled.

“It’s funny because there is a certain group of people that just expect us to win and I’m not sure they realize all the work that goes in,” Danna said. “Elissa had a great season stats-wise, but she meant a lot more than just stats or wins and loses.”

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Follow Andrew J. Campa on Twitter: @campadresports.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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