DOWNEY — With exactly half of the Crescenta Valley High boys' soccer team's 26 matches this season prior to Friday ending in shutouts staged by its defense, blanking opponents is just as often the norm for CV as anything else.
There was nothing run of the mill or ordinary, of course, about the Falcons' opponent Friday night — undefeated, nationally ranked powerhouse El Rancho — nor the CIF championship stage on which the teams met. The Falcons just made it seem that way.
A defensive effort that was nothing short of spectacular made first-half goals by Alex Berger and Eric Keshishian seem like a mountain of a lead, which the Dons spent the second half of the CIF Southern Section Division IV title game scrambling to scale only to be knocked down for good by Pavle Atanackovic's dagger in the 75th minute that accounted for the 3-0 final score.
"Easily our best game of the year," Falcons junior defender Matthew Bracht said. "Everyone gave it their all, we just came out and gave it 100%.
"It feels great. It's the best feeling ever."
The win capped an unbeaten 21-0-6 season for Crescenta Valley, which captured its first-ever CIF title in boys' soccer and the first for the school since the boys' water polo team won a Division VI title in 2008. To sweeten the deal, the Falcons clinched against a top-ranked Dons team (26-1) that eliminated it from last year's playoffs, 3-1, in the quarterfinals and had lost just once in its last 34 matches — a 2-0 defeat to San Clemente in the opening round of last year's CIF Southern California Division I Regional Championships.
"That makes it extra special, I think, because it hurt last year to get knocked out by them," Crescenta Valley senior defender Matt Schmutzer said. "Then to have them win CIF, we felt that could have been us. But it feels good this year."
Despite the final score, much of the match was really a gem of a defensive battle between both squads. El Rancho effectively prevented the Falcons from getting the ball up top to their most potent weapon, Atanackovic, and the Falcons' seamless recovery and quick reflexes on defense neutralized the Dons' technical passing attack and fleet-footed playmaker Francisco Lara, who entered with 35 goals, but was held to just two benign shots.
"They just did a fabulous job in the first half," Falcons Coach Grant Clark said of his team's defense. "Every time they had something that we got nervous about, there was somebody there to cover for another guy and peel the ball off."
Over the first scoreless 27 minutes, the Dons had a couple of prime opportunities. Jaime Moreno received a throw-in five yards outside of the goal in the 19th minute and turned to fire a shot on goal that was kicked out by sophomore defender Tony Royer, who anchored the Falcons' backline all night along with Bracht, Schmutzer and sophomore Brian Ju. Moments later, the Dons' Cristian Roldan had a clean look that clanged off the crossbar of the football uprights, just inches above the goal.
But it was Berger who would open the scoring in the 28th minute on a goal that initially wasn't. The senior midfielder's 30-yard free kick was blocked at close range by Roberto Hernandez of El Rancho, but the ball found its way back to Berger moments later and he unleashed a blast from 40 yards out that eluded the reach of leaping Dons goalkeeper David Lopez and struck the bottom of the crossbar.
The ball then bounced inside the mouth of the goal and play continued as an El Rancho player headed it over the endline. But after an appeal to the side judge closest to the play, the shot was ruled a goal and the Falcons had the early advantage.
"It just all of sudden brought us up," Berger said. "We got the first goal and that sets the tone for the rest of the game."
Four minutes later, a throw-in from the extreme right side of the Dons' goal by CV's Erick Trejo went straight to Keshishian, who was practically standing in the mouth of the goal, and the junior midfielder flicked it in sideways for a 2-0 lead.
"Honestly, as soon as we went up, 2-0, we felt so confident that they weren't going to come back on us," Schmutzer said.
The confidence was apparent, as the Falcons ran roughshod over the Dons for the remainder of the first half, although El Rancho closed the period with a point-black shot by Roldan that Falcons senior goalkeeper Nick Ruiz (five saves) somehow got his body in front of to make a deflection.
"They say 2-0 is the worst lead to have at half, but the way our defense played, it doesn't matter what the score was," Berger said. "[A 2-0 lead] felt pretty good."
Crescenta Valley concentrated more of its ranks into its defensive midfield in the second half and the strategy showed in the box score, as El Rancho fired 10 shots to the Falcons' two. But the Falcons' defense continued to be the difference on one big play after another in and around the goal.
In the opening minutes, El Rancho's Efrain Velasco dribbled and curled his way into the goal box through a crowd, but Ruiz was there to muffle his short attempt. In the 51st minute, Bracht made a field save on Mauricio Lopez' shot from inside the 10 and even Atanackovic got in on the defensive party when he headed out Miguel Vilchis' free kick from the one in the 52nd minute.
El Rancho's frustration persisted when Roldan had a one-on-one breakaway against Bracht in the 60th minute, but Bracht succeeded in cutting him off, leading to a frustration foul by Roldan as he pulled Bracht to the ground. Another breakup of a chance in the box by Schmutzer followed three minutes later. Schmutzer would continue to come up huge down the stretch, blocking a shot by Cesar Sanchez with 15 minutes left just before Ruiz made a save on the follow-up by Jonathan Soto. The pair repeated the feat on a similar play moments later, as El Rancho just couldn't sustain anything in the attacking third without the chance being broken up.
"I think I like that better because they didn't have as much structure," Schmutzer said of El Rancho's frantic attack. "It was so desperate, so they were just kind of throwing people forward instead of actually trying to break us down."
The final 10 minutes was not without some drama, as Mauricio Lopez let fly on an unblockable shot over Ruiz that also passed just over the crossbar with nine minutes left and a ball tipped up into the uprights by Ruiz landed back in the box and was poked into the goal by an El Rancho player setting off a brief celebration. But the goal was disallowed because the ball had gone out of bounds and Ruiz made a save on a Roldan header on the ensuing corner kick.
"If they got a goal, we wanted them to earn it," Clark said. "We didn't just want to give something away."
Atanackovic had Crescenta Valley's only two shots in the second half and made the second one count. He received a ball from Berger in the midfield just as his mark was stumbling, giving the senior forward all the room he needed to race for the goal and fire a shot from the right wing across David Lopez and into the left side of the net for his 39th goal of the year and sixth of the playoffs.
"They really pressured hard, they had two or three guys on me at all times," Atanackovic said. "Our outside backs were playing kind of defensive, so we couldn't get the ball forward a lot.
"[The goal] was just the icing on the cake. I just saw the guy on me, I saw he was coming in hard and I knew I had to turn on him. There was nobody behind me, so I took the space."
Atanackovic's late goal tied a season-high of goals allowed for El Rancho, which is ranked fifth in the nation by ESPN High School and had surrendered three goals only once prior this season, and it underscored just how far the Falcons program has come in its metamorphosis from contender to champion.
"It just makes it that much better," Berger said. "They knocked us out last year and for us to beat them in the final with a shutout, it's just unbelievable."