With the regular season coming to a close, the top four teams in the Big West had a playoff tournament to decide who would get a bid to the NCAA tournament.
The first-ranked Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Mustangs took on the fourth-ranked UC Irvine Anteaters, and second-ranked UC Santa Barbara played third-ranked UC Riverside in the other semifinal match. UCI had a tough battle with Cal Poly in their last meeting, with the Mustangs defeating the Anteaters 2-1 on Oct. 3.
In the tournament, the Anteaters came out strong and outplayed the Mustangs (17-1-2) at times, but ended their season in a 2-0 loss to Cal Poly on Nov. 7.
‘It’s all about chances, and we didn’t cash in on ours,’ said UC Irvine Women’s Head Coach Marine Cano.
A packed Anteater Stadium hosted the Big West tournament, and the loud crowd and music before kickoff had both teams nervous and eager. The Anteaters (10-5-5) started off controlling the game’s tempo, having several scoring chances in the opening minutes.
Senior forward Hayley McNallan sent in numerous dangerous crossing passes which nearly resulted in Anteater goals. But a sudden counterattack would leave the Anteaters stunned. Mustang junior midfielder Erin Martin sent a through-pass to freshman forward Kelsey Carroll, who calmly collected the ball and sent a left-footed shot up and around diving Anteater goalie Marissa Welliver to put the Mustangs up 1-0 at the 13:15 mark.
‘I hate to say it, but after that goal our game dropped down a peg or two,’ Cano hastily admitted.
Cal Poly began to dominate, winning the majority of the loose balls and causing Welliver to make some great saves to keep the Mustang offense at bay. Freshman forward Sharon Day was causing the Anteater defense a lot of trouble and created many scoring opportunities for the Mustangs.
The second half was a revival period for UCI, as they began to play as they did in the opening minutes of the first half.
Threatening shots from senior midfielder Caroline Kabe, McNallan and freshman forward Britney Webster would give Cal Poly a scare. Webster’s left-footed shot from 25 yards out would cause Mustang goalkeeper Liz Hill to make a leaping save to push the ball over the crossbar.
The Mustangs began to wear out the Anteaters, sending in substitutions almost regularly and tiring out the hardworking UCI defense.
At the 70 minute mark, Cal Poly would send in four subs into their offense, and the fresh legs paid off. Two of the substitutes would collaborate on an insurance goal at the 74:08 mark, as Sharon Day chipped a ball over two Anteater defenders and Erin Martin would head the ball into the near post to make it 2-0 in favor of Cal Poly.
The Anteaters battled right up until the final whistle, but could not put any damage on the scoreboard. It was without a doubt a tough way to end the season, especially for the Anteaters’ graduating seniors.
Senior defender Leah Dawson, who led the defense for most of her career at UCI, fought back tears as she expressed her emotions after the game.
‘Walking away from the field isn’t as hard as I thought it would be, because I know we were the better team out there today,’ Dawson said.
Cano was of course disappointed to have the season come to a close, but was very proud of his team’s performance.
‘My girls never quit, and I give [the Mustangs] credit, their defense was just too strong for us today. They are a very, very good team,’ Cano said.
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