HEMET — It doesn’t seem to matter whatever the format and whoever the opponent is for the La Cañada High girls’ soccer team this season.
The Spartans have seemingly found a way to win in an undefeated campaign that became magical on Tuesday evening.
Visiting La Cañada scored two-second half goals and defeated Mountain Pass League-champion Hemet, 2-0, in the CIF Southern Section Division V semifinals to advance to the program’s first-ever championship berth.
“Hemet is a very well-coached, tough team and they’re better athletes than we are,” said Spartans Coach Louie Bilowitz, who advanced to four previous titles games with the boys’ team (last time in 1996).”In the first half, we put the ball in the air like they do and we couldn’t play that type of game.
“At halftime, we settled the team down and said to play more of a ground game, which is more of our style and was obviously more successful.”
With the victory, the Rio Hondo League-champion Spartans (22-0-1), seeded third, will face Academy League third-place St. Margaret’s (11-10-5), which advanced via a controversial quarterfinal forfeit by La Quinta La Quinta followed by a 1-0 semifinal win over Rio Hondo League runner-up San Marino on Tuesday.
The contest will take place either Friday or Saturday at either Downey Warren High or Corona High, as will be determined by the CIF-SS office.
As for Tuesday, a scoreless stalemate controlled by Hemet (18-6-4) was broken through by the Spartans in the 55th minute.
Spartans senior midfielder Taylor Afshar sent a ball from the middle of the field to the left wing to junior striker Megan Decker, who took possession 35 yards from goal.
Decker fended off Bulldogs senior Korryan Miller with her back and then beat junior fullback Maddie Denbaugh one on one to create just enough separation to lace a 15-yard shot far post for a brilliant goal past the diving attempt of Bulldogs senior Valeien Masson.
“I saw the speed that Taylor was going and I knew she would just pop in a pass in the right spot,” Decker said. “When I got the ball, I saw two girls and I just tried to make my way around them.”
The goal not only put the Spartans up, 1-0, but led to a position change, as Bilowitz moved Decker to the back row to bolster his defense.
“We were having some problems in the back dealing with Hemet’s athleticism and Megan really helped settle us down,” Bilowitz said.
While Decker wasn’t specifically tasked to defend versus Bulldogs star forward Krista Haddock, she helped a Spartans surge that shut down the striker who scored two goals in a 4-0 victory for Hemet over La Cañada in the quarterfinals of the Division VI playoffs in 2012, the last time the teams met in the postseason.
Yet, with Decker on defense, the Spartans were far from punchless, instead delivering a staggering blow when sophomore halfback Katherine Sheehy scored on a six-yard goal in the 63rd minute to put the Spartans up, 2-0.
Sheehy’s goal was created on a solid three-girl combination that began with a pass from junior Cassy Quiring, who fed halfback Brianna Albarian at the 18.
As two defenders closed on Albarian, the senior laced a throughball to Sheehy, who one-timed the Spartans’ second goal.
“Two years ago, they killed us and it was a shutout,” Albarian said. “Those girls from that team didn’t forget that and it’s amazing to come together and to get this win.
“We’re going to CIF finals, I can’t believe it.”
Spartans goalie Kaitlyn Corral finished with five saves as the Spartans posted their 15th shutout this season, while the team has only surrendered one postseason goal.
“In all honesty, I don’t even think about the program or what this means historically, it’s all about the 19 players on this team,” said Bilowitz, who inserted all 18 healthy players at one juncture in the contest. “They get one more game and one more chance to accomplish something rare.”