By Marvin Luu
Following a difficult loss last Friday to No. 23 Santa Clara, the UC Irvine women’s soccer team (5-6-1) came back with a tumultuous 1-0 conference opening victory over UC Riverside (6-6-0) on Sunday evening at the Anteater Stadium. No one seemed more ecstatic than forward Claudia Lopez, one of the few seniors on the team, who jumped up and down and bolted into the outstretched arms of her teammates after punching in her first ever career goal — and the game winner during the 53rd minute mark of the contest.
“[The seniors] are focused on having that sense of want, to want the ball, to want to win, to want to do it for everybody, to want to do it for the team,” Lopez said. “[The team] is family and [it is about] having that bond and working hard for them.”
Sophomore forwards Noel Baham and Kiana Palacios also had a hand in pushing and driving the ‘Eaters offense through a game that saw both teams combine for a total of 17 shots, seven of which came from the ‘Eaters, and four of which were split between Baham and Palacios with two a piece.
Defensively, senior goalie Corey Tobin clinched her first shutout of conference play, holding the fort with four saves. Tobin has played well in the past few games, garnering at least four saves in each of the last three games.
“[Tobin] has matured a lot, she’s a senior and she’s playing like a senior now and she’s showing a lot of great leadership too,” said head coach Scott Juniper.
The evening began with UC Riverside coming out of the gate with a pair of shot attempts, but the ‘Eaters had an answer for UC Riverside’s early offensive flurry. The first shot attempt of the game came from Highlanders’ senior forward Tyler Cunningham, whose shot was deflected and saved by UCI’s backline. Sophomore midfielder Briana Sweeney came back with a subsequent opportunity that bounced off her head and went towards freshman forward Kyra Taylor, only to sail high into the hands of Tobin, who snatched it before Taylor could reach it.
In the 25th minute mark, UC Riverside’s junior defender Kelly Velasquez found herself within the ‘Eater’s box where she connected off a corner kick that was met by Tobin. The save marked the first official save of the game for the Yorba Linda native.
“We knew [that] it was going to be a tough game cause UC Riverside is a very talented team,” coach Juniper said. “They have improved a ton in the last few years, so the shut out and the win for the first game [of conference] is great and now we get to move on.”
UCI would not proceed in the game without putting up some shots of their own. The ‘Eaters found themselves on the offense when Palacios found an opening from 20 yards out and fired a long shot straight to Highlanders senior goalie Elizabeth Silas, who successfully recovered it. Within the 18th minute mark, Batham lost her defender and received a pass, which she shot wide out and into Silas’ hand. Despite the fact that the half ended with a scoreboard that illuminated 0-0, the half did not go by without activity.
“We wanted to start well and we did start well. We’ve played too many games where we’ve given up goals in the first ten minutes,” coach Juniper said. “[In this game,] we maintained the momentum as well as having to play through ugly periods of the game.”
The momentous point of the game came in the second half, when UCI ultimately sealed the game. In the 65th minute, the ‘Eaters had already put up four goals with many more miss timed opportunities. As the crowd grew a bit weary, with a woman shouting ‘getting it in the six!’ and subsequent pleas to ‘shoot it’, Lopez ultimately responded when she propelled a shot that rattled into the net off a feed from Palacios.
“It [felt] good to be 1-0 and to hold it down,” Lopez said of her first goal as an Anteater. “(…) Having that [moment] and being [able to say] ‘we can win this’ and ‘this is our opening conference game and we have to come out with the win’ (…) after scoring the goal had me thinking ‘we can do this’.”
The Highlanders came back with a couple of looks by Cunningham and Valasquez, but failed at an attempt to equalize the score and force overtime, allowing the ‘Eaters to close out their first conference game.
With the win, UCI will head over to Northridge where they are slated to face the Matadors on October 8th with a 7:00pm start time.