After a cold, foggy Nov. 10 night at Anteater Stadium, the UC Irvine men’s soccer team was overcome with an unfamiliar feeling after winning the past two conference tournaments. The Titans of Cal State Fullerton ousted the Anteaters in the first round of the Big West Conference Tournament by scoring two first-half goals and forcing Irvine to play catch-up for the rest of the match.
“We don’t know what our chances are,” Head Coach George Kuntz said following the devastating semifinal match. “We are going to train as if there’s another shot. We knew this game was important for us, but obviously so did Fullerton.”
After being outscored by the Anteaters 10-3 in both regular season meetings, including a 7-2 spectacle on Oct. 23, the Titans held UCI to one goal on 18 shots. Cal State Fullerton was led by the tremendous goalkeeping of reserve goalie Bryan Escalante, who had never started a game before in his career. Escalante finished the game with seven saves, while UCI’s indispensable keeper Andrew Fontein only came up with three.
CSUF scored its first goal in the 28th minute while countering UCI’s aggressive play early on. The Titans’ Nick Posthuma scored the first goal after receiving assists from Michael Denny and Jonathan Birt.
Senior Amani Walker had two opportunities to score following the first goal, but Fullerton’s swarming defense deflected both chances. In the 42nd minute, the Titans’ Oscar Aguero took advantage of senior Joel Bagby’s careless pass near the midfield line, which turned into a Kevin Venegas shot from about 18 feet out. Venegas put the ball in the back of the net for the second Titan goal, leaving many Anteater fans stunned.
“I felt we were sluggish in the first half,” Kuntz said. “I thought we needed to play with more composure, and it showed when our two center backs misplayed those balls in the first half. It’s really rare for those two guys, but we need to be better under pressure.”
Late in the second half, the Titans had an opportunity to put a third goal in the back of net. Fullerton’s Celso Alvarez found himself all alone on the right side of the pitch, and all he needed to do was beat UCI’s Fontein, but when he tripped, the rest of the Anteaters’ defense recovered, stopping the threat.
“They played a very physical game [tonight],” Kuntz said. “The referee allowed the game to be physical and we didn’t respond to how the game was being officiated. We misplayed some balls because we thought we were going to get hit. Little things off the ball, mostly, but credit Fullerton for playing good defense out there.”
Mid-way through the second half, the Anteaters finally began to play with some inspiration and a sense of urgency. Sophomore Zach Olow scored the ’Eaters lone goal in the 77th minute of the contest with a strike from the left side of the box over Escalante’s outstretched arms.
UCI out-shot the Titans 18-8 and totaled five more corner kicks than Fullerton, but that was not enough for the Anteaters to come out with a victory.
The No. 8 Anteaters finished with one of its most successful seasons under Coach Kuntz. With the help of a tenacious defense that allowed only 13 goals and offense that overpowered opponents, scoring 46 goals, the Anteaters compiled a regular season record of 14-2-3.
With the loss against the Titans, UCI failed to win their third consecutive Big West Tournament and also failed to secure an automatic bid in the NCAA Tournament.
“It would be the most devastating season for our group of guys if the season ended tonight,” Kuntz said. “I feel we have earned [a berth] into the tournament. We have been ranked in the top 10 for the whole season. It’s just a tough pill to swallow at this point.”