From a nerve-wracking marathon penalty-kick session to recording shutouts, it's been a dramatic and historic postseason run for the La Cañada High girls' soccer team.
Ultimately, it has been one that's landed the Spartans in the program's first CIF Southern Section championship match.
Third-seeded La Cañada (22-0-1) will look to top off its impressive playoff run when it meets St. Margaret's (11-10-6) in the Division V title match at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at Corona High.
“My focus has been more on my players enjoying this experience,” said La Cañada Coach Louie Bilowitz, who has plenty of championship pedigree after he previously guided the school's boys' soccer team to three CIF titles from 1989-96. “It's created new memories for them and, 20 years from now, they can tell their children about this. This is a time where they've been very successful and they'll look back on it knowing they played at their best.
“It's a special time for all 19 of these girls.”
The Spartans, who won the Rio Hondo League championship, have relied on a stingy defense throughout the season to hold their opponents at bay. They have yielded just 10 goals, including one in the postseason.
La Cañada, looking to become the first area girls' soccer team to win a CIF championship since Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy captured a Division I title in 2011, began the postseason with a 4-0 home win against Heritage Christian before earning a 2-0 victory against visiting California.
Things then got a bit hectic for the Spartans, who were slated to meet Sage Hill in a quarterfinal road match Feb. 28.
However, the contest was moved to Monday after rain flooded parts of the Sage Hill field. La Cañada then topped Sage Hill, 1-1(7-6) in a 10-round penalty-kick session before posting a 2-0 road victory against Hemet in a semifinal contest Tuesday.
“They've overcome a few obstacles, such as having to play games on consecutive days, but it's made them stronger,” said Bilowitz, whose team has posted 15 shutouts on the season.
The Spartans' backbone has been goalkeeper Kaitlyn Corral and a defensive unit that includes Natalie Ragusa, Simone Weinstein, Rosie Quezada, Katrina Davis, Olivia Leyva and Megan Reilly.
Bilowitz said Davis suffered a possible concussion against Sage Hill and it wasn't clear if she will participate in Saturday's match after missing the contest against Hemet.
The Spartans have been led on offense by junior standout forward Megan Decker, who scored the tying goal early in the second half against Sage Hill and then scored the winning goal in the second half against Hemet.
Decker, who leads the team with 16 goals and 16 assists for 48 points, said the Spartans have been able to clear several obstacles throughout the postseason.
“We've been in some close games, but we are finding ways to prove ourselves each time,” Decker said. “We've been put in some pressure situations and you try to learn from each of them.
“I think maybe we are still in shock a little that we have gotten this far. We are all so excited and it would be cool to win a championship.”
Standing in the way will be St. Margaret's, which registered a 1-0 home semifinal victory against San Marino, which finished runner-up to La Cañada in the Rio Hondo League, on Tuesday.
Grace Chalmers scored in the game's first minute for St. Margaret’s, which finished third in the Academy League.
The Tartans opened the playoffs with a 7-0 wild-card win against visiting Desert. They then recorded a 2-1 first-round road victory against Arrowhead Christian before meeting top-seeded La Quinta La Quinta in a quarterfinal road match.
La Quinta topped St. Margaret's, 0-0(4-3), and thought it had advanced to the semifinals.
St. Margaret's filed a protest with the CIF Southern Section office, claiming a La Quinta player who had been issued a red card in a previous match had been in attendance at the St. Margaret's game.
The CIF Southern Section ruled Sunday that La Quinta would forfeit its victory.
According to CIF Bylaw 2416: “A player who was ejected from the previous contest, who knowingly or unknowingly, participates in or is in attendance at the next contest, will result in the forfeiture of that contest.”
Regardless of what transpired, Bilowitz said the Tartans possess plenty of talent.
“They are a very aggressive and physical team,” Bilowitz said. “They play a lot of long balls and their forwards have a lot of speed.
“They are not an easy team to play against.”
Thus far, of course, the Spartans haven’t been, either.
“We're not a dangerous team,” Bilowitz said, “just a successful one.”