It was a defining moment for the Santa Monica girls lacrosse team.

The Vikings were facing Culver City in league action earlier this month and trailed by two goals at halftime, a significant deficit in a tightly contested game.

What transpired after the break will likely go down in program history as a major turning point, Samohi forcing a tie before stealing a thrilling 8-7 victory on a goal by New Zealand native Luka Letica with seconds to spare.

“Fun and intense” was how coach Laura Cavallo described the triumph. It took grit, poise, even panache — not necessarily things you’d expect from a batch of players who had never picked up lacrosse sticks before last year.

“It just shows their discipline and coachability,” Cavallo said. “The things we were doing well, we accentuated. The things that we weren’t doing well, we made adjustments. We pulled together and pulled through.”

Two seasons ago, it couldn’t have happened — there was no girls lacrosse program at the high school.

Last year, it probably wouldn’t have happened — the fledgling team of inexperienced players struggled to win games as it focused its energy on learning the fundamentals of the sport.

But the efforts of Cavallo and others have hastened the transformation of a collection of rookies into a potential playoff bunch.

It all started about two years ago as parents and other community members gained approval to start Vikings lacrosse teams for boys and girls.

Cavallo, a former collegiate star who still holds several Cal records, was working with youth players in West Los Angeles when she heard about the opportunity to coach at Samohi. She accepted the position despite the challenges of fundraising for a program that receives little financial support from the district.

Under Cavallo and then-assistant Cheyenne Cockrell, the Vikings laid the groundwork for the future in their inaugural 2014 campaign.

“I had never coached before in this capacity,” Cavallo said. “When you go from being a successful player to coaching the basic skills and techniques, it uses a different part of the brain that you’re not used to using. It has been a bit challenging, but I’ve learned every step of the way. I hope I’m a better coach today than I was yesterday. The girls make my job enjoyable. It’s the best part of my day, going out of the field and helping them learn and teaching lifelong skills they can use later on in life.”

Cavallo and current assistant Samantha Slama, a UCLA alumna, have seen major progress on the field this season.

After losing 6-5 to El Segundo in its season opener and falling to Downey four days later, Samohi (8-2) logged several convincing victories. It defeated Los Angeles-Marlborough 8-1, dusted Woodland Hills-Louisville Catholic 13-3 and dominated Los Angeles-Hamilton 14-4 before topping rival Beverly Hills 12-5 on April 15. The comeback against Culver City came two days later.

The Vikings, who currently have 20 players on their roster, hope to add a junior varsity team next year. But when they host Beverly Hills in their regular-season finale May 1, they will have already come a long way.

“We’ve got a much more dedicated team,” Cavallo said. “They know how much time they need to commit. … When you’re passionate about it, you put in 110 percent to get better.”

Contact Jeff Goodman at 310-573-8351, or on Twitter.

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