You could sense the mutual respect in the air after Thursday afternoon's US Lacrosse Southern Section boys playoff game between Santa Margarita and El Toro. The teams tussled for 48 minutes of hard-fought action that included every element you'd expect from a quarterfinal clash in one of the sport's most respected regions.
Determination, wherewithal and hustle highlighted a defensive battle between two squads fixated on advancing to Saturday's semifinals. The result, a 4-3 victory by El Toro, was every bit indicative of the grind-it-out style of play that took center stage at Serrano Intermediate School in Lake Forest.
When the Chargers and Eagles first met on the same field in early March, El Toro’s 9-5 victory put Orange County on alert that the team might be primed for a strong spring, The Chargers wound up winning the South Coast League championship with a 7-1 league record, while Santa Margarita meandered through an up-and-down season.
The Eagles were viewed as a Trinity League favorite and Southern Section power. But a brutal schedule and rough March (2-7 in the season’s opening month) left Santa Margarita slumping into the playoffs as an unknown quantity, an 11th-seed that few wanted to face early in the postseason. The Eagles knocked off sixth-seeded Tesoro on the road in the first round to advance to Thursday’s matchup against third-seeded El Toro, which enjoyed a bye and an automatic spot in the quarterfinals.
Santa Margarita scored first when midfielder Barrett Kelly capitalized on a solid assist from junior Connor Ebner. El Toro attacker Jared Farrell buried the equalizer with less than 20 seconds remaining in the first quarter, bringing the opening 12 minutes to a close with the score knotted at one.
The Chargers grabbed their first lead of the contest midway through the second quarter, when senior Erik Larson snuck a one-hop dart past Eagles goalie Ronnie Pisano. Farrell found the back of the net once more to cap off a second quarter defined by El Toro’s assertiveness.
Farrell received a tremendous centering feed from senior Chris Snarr. Posted in front of the crease, the junior used his size to gain position before sending a behind-the-back shot past Pisano to give the Chargers a 3-1 lead with less than a minute remaining in the half. El Toro outshot the Eagles 13-4 in the second quarter.
“Those goals to close out the first two quarters were huge, especially in a tight game like this,” Chargers coach Adam Guy said. “Santa Margarita’s defense played great, so every goal mattered so much. When both teams are working extremely hard, scoring can really take the wind out of an opponent’s sails and give you a major lift.”
While Santa Margarita may have entered halftime disheartened, the team began the third quarter with an attitude of overwhelming enthusiasm. Kelly cut the deficit to 3-2 early in the third quarter. Freshman Drew Webster quickly followed with a goal of his own to tie the score at 3-3 with 7:30 remaining in the quarter. The youngster, participating in only his second career varsity game, played the part of a savvy veteran as he took a pass from teammate Trevor Cook and buried the tying shot.
Just when it looked as if the Eagles had gained an upper hand in the battle, El Toro took its game to another level. After being outshot 6-1 to start the second half, the Chargers cleaned up their offensive attack and smothered Santa Margarita’s passing game.
The Eagles never truly threatened El Toro goaltender Chris Laurino during the final 18 minutes of play, when the Chargers limited Santa Margarita to only three shot attempts while putting up 14 of their own in the fourth quarter.
After being turned away by the Eagles' defense time and time again, El Toro finally broke through when senior attacker Jake Johnson wound up and fired a rocket from straight out to give the Chargers a 4-3 advantage with nine minutes remaining in the game.
Johnson’s goal proved to be all the offense El Toro would need. Santa Margarita simply couldn’t find a rhythm offensively as the clock continued to dwindle.
"It was frustrating for a lot of the second half because we had some trouble clearing the ball," Ebner said after the game.
The combination of El Toro’s ball-control offense and the Eagles' inability to advance the ball downfield proved to be the difference. The Chargers held onto their slim lead until the clock hit triple digits, sending them to the next round of playoffs.
“Our guys put forth a great effort at the end of the game,” Guy said. “The fourth quarter is what we’ve trained for all year. It’s where games are won and lost and that’s exactly what happened today. I’ve never doubted our kids’ work ethic all year and they showed they can close out a win again today.”
El Toro awaits a 4:30 p.m. showdown Saturday against St. Margaret’s. The Tartans took down Huntington Beach, 7-5, in their quarterfinal matchup on Thursday afternoon. In Saturday's 2 p.m. semifinal, top-ranked Foothill plays fourth-ranked San Clemente. Both semifinals will be played at San Clemente High.
“It’s time to prepare all over again,” Guy said. “I’ll definitely be watching film because I know St. Margaret’s likes to run a zone defense and we’ll need to be ready for that. The main thing is getting our kids’ focus back on track because we just won a great quarterfinal game. We have to mentally say, ‘OK, that’s over. Who’s next?’ and move on.”
Santa Margarita junior Josh Kang, a defensive mainstay at the back end of the Eagles' attack, reflected on his team’s arduous season-ending defeat but quickly turned his focus to 2012, when the squad returns 19 varsity members and anticipates an influx of talent from its junior varsity ranks.
"This was a tough loss because we've grown so much as a team throughout a season of ups and downs," Kang said. "It will be tough to move on without our seniors next year, but I feel like the underclassmen will be able to help carry over the bond we‘ve created. We've learned a lot about ourselves as a team this season, and I think the experience can only help us improve."