LAGUNA HILLS — A Corona del Mar High girls' lacrosse team that likes the word "underdog" ran into a Los Alamitos team that has been anything but that over the past several years.
The Griffins are going for their sixth consecutive U.S. Lacrosse Southern Section South Division title. They have a new varsity head coach, Emily Mukai, but it certainly appears to be business as usual.
No. 2-seeded Los Al started strong and finished strong to beat No. 6 CdM, 16-9, in a South Division semifinal match Saturday afternoon at Laguna Hills High. The loss ended CdM's season.
The Griffins will try to take out their second straight Pacific Coast League team in the South Division (Orange County) final Wednesday night at Aliso Niguel High. They'll play No. 4-seeded Beckman, which upset top-seeded Capistrano Valley, 13-11, in the other semifinal match.
Corona del Mar (16-5) battled hard but was unable to secure most of the draws against Los Al (13-6), which proved critical as the game went on. And not only did Los Al senior Grace Schmidt-Beck win many of the draws, but she led everyone in the game with five goals.
"In a close game, the draw is everything," CdM Coach Aly Simons said. "In a tight, competitive game, there's not going to be a lot of error besides that. You've got to figure out a way to get the draw. I feel like we have really strong draw people, but [the Griffins] were really good at it."
Los Alamitos marched out to an 8-2 lead late in the first half. CdM, coming off an emotional 12-11 quarterfinal victory over Foothill two days earlier, found it tough to keep up. And Los Alamitos' 5-foot-10 junior goalkeeper Ane Marie Horton was imposing, stopping a couple of shots from point-blank range and finishing with eight saves overall.
"Foothill was definitely still on our mind," CdM senior co-captain Kacie Kline said. "Just playing that team is really emotional for us, mentally and physically. I just think that coming into this game, we may not have been as focused on this team specifically. Foothill, we've played them each year, so we knew exactly what to do. Los Al, we haven't played them [this year], so it's not as big of a rivalry for us."
The Sea Kings did draw closer. First it was Kline finding fellow senior co-captain Jamie Smith for a goal with 2:25 left in the half. Then it was sophomore Payton Carter, scoring on a free position shot with 15 seconds left to pull CdM within 8-4 at halftime.
The Griffins increased the lead to five goals again, on scores by Schmidt-Beck and senior midfielder Caitlin Derry. Mukai is comfortable with either player controlling the draws, but Schmidt-Beck was on her game on Saturday.
"If Grace is taking care of it, we'll leave her on," Mukai said. "She's really good at feeling where the ball's going to go, and just getting there."
CdM again tried to get back into it. Senior co-captain Sabrina Smith found a cutting Kline in front to make the score 10-6 with 19:15 left in the game. Three minutes later, senior co-captain Kendall Mulvaney ran in front and scored low, cutting the Los Al lead to three.
Mukai called timeout. Simons knew what was coming.
"Los Al completely changed the way they were attacking," Simons said. "They weren't stalling out the clock, but they were taking their good old time. We didn't have a lot of time to waste, so we had to pressure out ... We had to play a more aggressive, riskier defense. If I could take the first half and the first 10 minutes of the second half, I think we were even. But then when you have that advantage strategically, you slow down the clock, and that's really hard to get through. But I feel like we played really well.
"It's so easy to just get so frustrated, but they continued to work hard until the very end. To me, those were the moments where I was just so proud of them. So proud of them, because they finished strong. They finished as strong as they could."
Los Al increased the lead to as many as nine on Angelina Cuevas' goal with less than three minutes left, before the Sea Kings indeed finished strong. Kline and Sabrina Smith scored the final two goals of the game.
Kline led all CdM players with four goals, while Paige Miller also scored for CdM. Sabrina Smith had four draw controls, while Carter had two draw controls and two ground balls. Senior goalie Kate Allen made six saves.
There were plenty of tears after the team met postgame in the northwest corner of the stadium.
"I've never been on a closer team in my life," Kline said. "Especially senior year, leaving everyone is really hard."
But for the Sea Kings, it was a special season that included just the second Orange County semifinal appearance in program history, two upset wins over Foothill and a co-Pacific Coast League title. And the program appears to be ready to stay near the top. There were five freshmen on varsity this year.
"We're very happy with the way our season went," said Sabrina Smith, a four-year varsity player along with Kline. "I can't say that I'm super-disappointed or upset, because I didn't even expect to go this far at the beginning of the season. And I definitely think that CdM is going to be a team to look out for in the next few years. We have a lot of people coming up. There's so many people on our sideline that are amazing players."