BURBANK — While it's clear that both the Burbank High and La Cañada girls' water polo programs are in the early stages of building their teams up this season, Thursday afternoon's nonleague match was evidence that the Spartans have clearly improved from a season ago, but it's the Bulldogs who have an undefeated start to the season as a platform to move forward.

Bolstered by a key goal from Lala Herpetian late in the match and a defensive stop by the sophomore utility player, the Bulldogs staved off the visiting Spartans, 5-3, at Burbank High.

“These [nonleague] games are great because it gives us an opportunity to work as a team, try new things and ideally we gain that confidence [that we need],” said first-year Burbank Coach Kristina Garcia, whose team improved to 3-0.

The Spartans, who were playing their season opener, were held scoreless for a span of more than 15 minutes before Lindsey Coss and Miranda Mora scored goals 43 seconds apart in the fourth quarter to cut the score to 4-3. But a goal by Herpetian on a man-advantage with 1:35 remaining that squeezed inside the far post essentially clinched the match.

“That’s what we needed,” said Garcia, who got two goals apiece from Herpetian and senior hole/set Abby Glaessner and a single tally from sophomore utility Gaby Aghakian.

With 28 seconds left, the Spartans got a steal off a poor Bulldogs’ pass, but Herpetian tied up the possession, creating a scramble for the ball that saw the time run out.

Still, second-year Spartans Coach Kristen Dronberger was pleased with the progress shown by a team that a season earlier lost to Burbank, 18-1.

“I have no complaints,” said Dronberger, a former All-American at USC who assisted the Spartans boys’ team in its CIF Southern Section Division III finals run. “Our defense was eons better. ... We made leaps and bounds from last year.”

The Spartans held the lead early on, breaking a shutout that encompassed the first quarter when Shelby Powell scored with 6:31 to go in the second quarter. But the Bulldogs answered only 25 seconds later when Herpetian scored off a wide-open look. Glaessner followed with a skip shot for a 2-1 lead with 5:14 to go in the first half. Glaessner’s tally ended the first-half scoring.

In the second half, though, the Bulldogs built a 4-1 lead and it looked as if they would cruise to victory before the Spartans’ offensive spurt.

“It’s hard not to get frustrated,” said Glaessner of the mindset after giving up two quick goals in a game that looked to be theirs. “I knew we were the better team and we would pull through. I’m happy the scoreboard reflected that.”

Burbank goalie Jasmine Ellman tallied eight saves, while her La Cañada counterpart, Vanora Chapman, garnered 10 saves.

“Vanora played a great game,” Dronberger said.

Overall, Dronberger is pleased with the changes that she’s seen from the prior season, most noticeably with her team’s defensive play and physicality.

“It’s fun, it’s exciting,” she said. “I’m happy that everybody is getting more confident.”

For Glaessner and Co., there’s also plenty of improvement to be had in general, but Tuesday’s match wasn’t their best, either, according to the senior.

“We obviously have to work on our communication and our hustle,” Glaessner said. “Overall, we could’ve played better, but I was happy with the win and we pulled through in the end.”