ANAHEIM — The last time the Splash played Mexico, there was a franchise-record crowd on hand and Bernie "The Bolt" Lilavois was nothing more to them than a pretty good nickname.
That changed Sunday night in front of a franchise-record announced crowd of 10,934, as Lilavois struck in the 4-3 victory.
Lilavois' big play came 7 minutes 48 seconds into the fourth quarter. Mexico's Mariano Bollela, pressured by defenders Doug Neely, had only one option--pass to his goalkeeper, Gerardo Cazares.
Except the ball was up in the air and Cazares couldn't use his hands.
But Lilavois used his head, scoring from point-blank range.
That, along with two goals and an assist from Raffaele Ruotolo and another strong defensive effort--the third straight game the Splash has given up only three goals--the Splash moved into the race for first in the Southern Division.
The Splash (13-10), winners of three consecutive games for the first time this season, is one game behind Mexico (14-9) and San Diego (13-8).
Lilavois said the team knew the game had huge playoff implications and drew inspiration from the large crowd.
"When we came out for warmups and saw the size of the crowd, no one had to say a word," he said. "I got the chills.
"If you can't get up for a big game like this--give credit to the boys here, we did [get up]. But the job's not done."
Awaiting are four consecutive road games--including San Diego and Mexico City. The trip starts Saturday in Seattle (9-14). The Splash is 6-4 on the road.
Splash Coach George Fernandez said his team is in great position not only for a division title but also for one of two wild-card berths.
"I think they're ready to rock and roll," Fernandez said. "These last three games, if you can't see that, you're blind. But we've got some big games left. If we lose to Seattle [9-14], we're right back in the dump again."
The Splash has given up only three goals in each of the last three games. Goalkeeper Ruben Fernandez was spectacular while making 20 saves.
"It's easier when you get some confidence," said Fernandez, who lowered his goals-against average to 5.55, the CISL's best. "The defense is helping a lot. The whole defense. That's making a difference, big time."
Mexico had the CISL's best defense, giving up only 5.2 goals per game. But right now, the Splash has the league's hottest defense. The Splash was outshot in the fourth quarter, 14-4.
The Splash led, 3-2, at halftime and Ruotolo had a part in all three goals.
Ruotolo gave the Splash a short-lived lead 7:36 into the game when he scored from the free-kick mark on a restart, rifling the ball through three defenders and into the upper right corner past Cazares, who lost for only the second time this year--both times to the Splash. He has seven victories.
But, showing shades of the debacle against San Jose, the Splash was tied 23 seconds later when Francisco Ceron scored his second goal of the year. Against San Jose, the Splash gave up four goals within a minute of scoring themselves and lost, 12-9.
Ruotolo passed to Neely, who scored his team-high 28th goal of the season at 6:45, and Ruotolo scored just over three minutes later from the corner.
Ruotolo moved into the CISL's top 15 point-scorers. He has 47--tied for 14th.