HACIENDA HEIGHTS — After all the instances in which it seemed the Crescenta Valley High girls' water polo team had victory in its grasp only to see it slip away, it appeared that host Los Altos was the one that had finally closed a firm grip upon triumph.
But it was the shot clock that sounded rather than the final horn when Conqueror Kimberly Conde put a shot past Crescenta Valley goalie Gabriel Isacson.
Seconds later, amid the chaos and bedlam of a celebratory and confused home crowd, Falcons sophomore Shannon Hovanesian quickly drew an ejection in front of the Los Altos goal and passed back to teammate Nayiri Kechichian, who immediately fed it back to Hovanesian. And at the 57-second mark of sudden death in a CIF Southern Section Division V girls' water polo quarterfinal classic, Hovanesian propelled the Falcons into the semifinals, scoring the game-winner in a 14-13 conquest over the Conquerors.
"My heart skipped for a little bit," said Hovanesian after Conde's near-score, "and then I saw the refs. I just lit up and I was excited and I was able to go again.
"To do that, it's hundreds of hours of practices. So much chemistry in our team was able to drive us to this position we're in now."
With the dramatic victory, the third-seeded Falcons improved to 31-0 on the season en route to facing defending champion Temescal Canyon — which ousted CV in last year's semifinal — in Wednesday's semifinal at 6 p.m. at Mount San Antonio College, while building a winning streak that is the third longest in CIF Southern Section history behind Bell Gardens (85 wins) and Foothill (49), according to cifss.org.
Three of those wins have come at the expense of Los Altos (17-13), which lost to the Falcons twice during the regular season, including another one-goal defeat. But one would be hard-pressed to ask for a more dramatic contest than Saturday's roller-coaster ride.
"It's hard to beat a team three times," said CV's Sabrina Hatzer, who had four goals and five steals. "We had to think about what we needed to do, stay strong, push through."
Crescenta Valley, which had owned a four-goal lead in the second quarter, led 12-11, with less than a minute remaining in regulation and took a 13-12 advantage in the first half of overtime, but couldn't close out. Perhaps their finest chance to put the match away came when Stefanie Loporchio recorded a clutch steal with 11 seconds left in overtime and hit a streaking Hatzer alone on the right wing. However, Hatzer, one on one with the keeper, pushed her shot right off the post as time expired to send the match to sudden victory.
"I didn't know which side [to shoot]," said Hatzer, explaining that her indecision likely led to the miss.
But Hatzer and Co. assuredly showed their resolve when the waters settled after 36 minutes and three seconds of playoff water polo.
"We just rely on each other and you have different pieces that step up," said Falcons Coach Pete Loporchio, who also got three goals and four steals from daughter Stefanie, a goal, five steals, two assists and two field blocks from Breanna Lawton and three steals from Katie Benson. "These kind of games are character builders."
After a Hatzer goal off a Hovanesian pass brought the score to 5-1 with 6:16 remaining in the first half and Loporchio, off a Benson pass, scored on a great shot inside the far post to push the lead back to four at 6-2 with 5:32 left in the half, it seemed as if the match was headed down a one-sided path.
But Los Altos, led by CIF single-season goal-scoring champion Stephanie Contreras, came fighting back.
"That's how we've played all the big teams. We never give up," said Conquerors Coach Chris Coleman, whose team has also faced Temescal Canyon and top-seeded Bonita, which will play Redlands East Valley in the other semifinal. "[Saturday's match was a] helluva game."
With a precarious halftime lead of 7-5, the Falcons' usually dominant defense and formidable offense both waned as Los Altos gained steam.
A score with 5:11 to go in the third quarter by Contreras tied the match for the first time since an early 1-1 deadlock with more than five minutes to go in the opening stanza. Contreras, a junior who finished the season with 131 goals, holds the single-season Southern Section record of 188 goals that she set as a freshman and followed with a third-place mark of 179 as a sophomore. She led the charge as the Falcons relinquished a season-high 13 goals, allowing double-digit tallies for just the third time this season.
"[Contreras] is the female version of Hakop [Kaplanyan]," said Coach Loporchio, comparing Contreras to three-time All-Area Boys' Water Polo Player of the Year Kaplanyan, who starred at Hoover. "She's instant offense."
Contreras had six goals, while Aleena Tienda had five and assisted Kaitlyn Eng on the go-ahead score with 4:11 remaining in the third quarter to give the Conquerors an 8-7 edge. The score capped a 9:21 span in which Los Altos, after trailing, 6-2, scored six goals and held the Falcons to just two.
But the man-advantage — just as it won the game for the Falcons — saved them in the third, as Hovanesian, who had three goals and four steals, tied the match at 8 off an assist by Lawton on a six-on-five.
A Loporchio lob put the Falcons back up before they surrendered two straight goals and Hatzer put the match even again at 10 on another man-advantage. From there on, though, offense was at a premium and defense was the standard for both teams, with CV coming up short on its next four man-advantages.
Down 11-10, the Falcons got a goal from Kechichian to tie it with 6:08 to go before the senior scored the go-ahead tally with 2:59 remaining. Following a big save by Isacson, who had 17 on the day, on three consecutive possession, the Falcons missed on a man-advantage, had their shot clock run out and turned it over on an offensive foul.
Los Altos took a timeout with 41 seconds remaining and out of the break bunched all of its field players in a mass not more than a few meters from the mouth of the goal, but Contreras was behind the huddle on the perimeter and calmly raised up and buried the equalizer with 39 seconds to go.
A Kechichian shot was easily saved shortly before the match went to overtime, where, with 1:27 remaining in the first half of the extra session, Lawton picked an opportune time to score her only goal, converting off an Elissa Arnold assist for a 13-12 advantage. Lawton was the definition of clutch in the fourth period and overtime, tallying a goal, three steals and two field blocks in that span.
But thereafter, the Falcons' offense went scoreless for the next 6:30 of the match, which was more than enough time for Contreras to score her sixth goal of the match with 1:20 to play in the second half of the first overtime.
Contreras also won the crucial sudden-death sprint, but Loporchio came up clutch again with a huge steal, but a Kechichian shot right at the keeper was saved. The Falcons defense held on the ensuing possession before a Conquerors steal set up Conde's shot-clock histrionics and Hovanesian's classic-concluding score.
"I keep telling people I don't want our overall body of work to be determined by one game," Coach Loporchio said, "but somehow they keep amazing [us]."