SOUTH PASADENA — It was clear to anyone within earshot of South Pasadena High's pool at the end of the first quarter of the CIF Southern Section Division IV-A girls' water polo playoff opener that things weren't going the Tigers' way.
Devin Grab, South Pas' star player, was yelling at her team. On the other side, visiting Capistrano Valley started laughing, clearly enjoying the surprising lead it held over the Rio Hondo League champions.
As bad as things were for South Pas in the first half, they were just as good in the second half of its 12-9 victory Wednesday. The Tigers outscored the Cougars, 8-3, in the final 14 minutes for the victory.
“I don't even want to think about that first half,” South Pasadena Coach Robert Echeverria said. “We made it more difficult than it should have been, but I'm really proud of the girls and the way they turned it around in the second half. You could see the difference in intensity.”
A 3-0 South Pasadena run to close the third quarter gave the home team an 8-6 lead and all but ensured a Tigers win. Grab scored all three of those goals with Liza Echeverria sparking each counter-attack strike with a steal.
The highlight of the game occurred when Grab fired a desperation shot from South Pas' own five-meter mark with two seconds left in the third. The ball skipped off the water and curved into Capistrano Valley's cage to get Tigers' fans cheering, clapping, jumping and hugging.
“I thought it was going wide, actually,” said Grab, who finished with a game-high six goals and two steals. “[When it went in] I was like, 'Oh, my God, are you kidding me?'“
Robert Echeverria said there was no way his team was giving up the lead after that.
“The shot wasn't going in and then it curved in,” he said. “I think that just pumped the girls up, and I think from that point on there was no turning back. We had the momentum and I was thankful for that.”
The Tigers' quarterfinal match is set for Saturday at 5 p.m. against the winner of Thursday's Los Altos-Rio Mesa first-round match. South Pasadena (14-8) will play at home should Los Altos win and take to the road with a Rio Mesa victory.
South Pas admitted it lacked focus in the first 14 minutes, after which it found itself down, 5-4, to Capistrano Valley (17-12), a wild-card and fourth-place team out of the Sea View League.
Pair the lackadaisical attitude with a physical Cougars defense that wasn't shy about double-teaming Grab and the Tigers' couldn't find a rhythm on either side of the pool.
“We went into the game with a different mindset,” said Liza Echeverria, who scored three goals and added five steals. “We thought we were going to be OK, but after Devin put us in our place we just started getting back into our normal routine by shutting them out.”
The Tigers committed eight turnovers in the first quarter and 20 in the first half. The awful start prompted Robert Echeverria to bench Grab for most of the second quarter to force his group to play as an unit.
Capistrano Valley took advantage with Grab on the bench and scored the first three goals of the second quarter for a 5-2 lead with 4:31 to play in the half.
“Even though we went down three goals, I wasn't afraid to do it,” said Robert Echeverria, who got a great game from goalie Clarque De Young (nine saves, two steals). “I thought that helped in the second half. We just turned it around and played as a team.”
It was Grab that pulled South Pas back within a goal by halftime, though, with a pair of goals with 2:43 and 51 seconds to play in the half on a five-meter and skip shot, respectively.
Liza Echeverria tied the game at 5 about a minute and 15 seconds into the second half when she took a lob pass from Grab and cashed in the two-meter goal.
The game escalated to a frantic pace from there with each side combining for 13 turnovers in the third quarter. Madison Matsushima (three goals, three steals) put Capistrano Valley, which also had three scores from Brittany Farrell, back up a score when she scored on a deep shot from the middle of the pool with 3:08 left in the quarter.
But South Pasadena was in a groove. Grab got hot and took her team on the 3-0 run in the final 1:43 of the third quarter. Robert Echeverria said the fact the team began playing better in the second half fueled Grab.
“Her watching her teammates score just pumps her up,” he said. “A lot of people think she wants to score eight or 10 goals, but no, she's the type of player that enjoys to watch her teammates score and enjoy that moment that she enjoys when she scores. I think that just pumped her up.”
The Tigers kept up the intensity and saw Grab and Echeverria score two of the first three fourth-quarter goals. Grace Algeo (three steals) put the game all but out of reach when she scored South Pasadena's final two goals with 2:26 and 1:38 to play for a four-goal lead.
“This was a wake-up call to see in the first round they actually kept up with us,” Liza Echeverria said. “We have to keep getting better to maintain our spot in CIF.”