By: Marvin Luu
Despite sophomore forward Kiana Palacios’s crucial equalizer in the second half of a tight contest against UC Davis (10-7-2), the UC Irvine women’s soccer team (7-11-1) failed to hold off the Aggies on Sunday evening, picking up a 1-2 loss to conclude their last conference match of the season — and the final collegiate contest for six seniors.
After accumulating a total of 18 years of experience at UCI, seniors Jenny Konishi, Shauna Salcido, Clarissa Robles, Haley O’Brien, Claudia Lopez and Corey Tobin checked into their final game of their collegiate careers behind the support of 583 cheering fans at the Anteater Stadium. Of the six, Tobin, UCI’s goalie and last line of defense, garnered some honors during her farewell campaign, receiving a Buffalo Wild Wing Anteater of the Week nod after earning her sixth of seven shutouts while also taking the second place slot amongst the leading Big West Conference goalies this year with 77 of her 124 career saves. The 5’10’’ veteran had put up three saves for the game.
“It’s been a hard four years, but in the time I did play, I feel like I was able to encourage people and really bring a presence and be confident,” said Tobin.
Coming out of the pitch, the ‘Eaters attacked the Aggies with a poised and controlled effort. Palacios became the driving force of UCI’s offense with three shots, two of which were on goal while one would go on to reach the back of the Aggies’ nets in the second half. Palacios had found her scoring touch, barreling in three of her five goals of the season within the last two games.
“In the beginning [of the year] it was tough,” Palacios said. “It was tough for me to score goals and it was stressful . . . and finally [coach Scott Juniper] talked to me and said ‘just play your game, you know how to play [and] you know how to shoot.’ And [so], over the past few games, things were very easy.”
As UCI continued to push their offensive tempo, UC Davis responded well by putting up three shots of their own. Just 15 minutes into the match, Aggie junior forward Rachel Smith gave the ‘Eaters an early scare when she ran past a couple of UCI defenders and propelled a volley from 20 yards out into Tobin’s gloves. With two minutes before the half, UCI returned with one last effort as freshman midfielder Shelby Lee found some space around a crowd of both blue and yellow jerseys. From above the left side of the box, Lee braced and gathered herself for a quick shot that was denied before it could even reach Aggies goalie Alexis Smith.
UCI refused to slow down in the second half, pushing the ball up with urgency. While the fans were treated to quick breaks and much action from UCI, the ‘Eaters may have gotten ahead of themselves with their hunger to score, obtaining five offside calls in the second half.
Eventually, UCI would not be able to hold off the Aggies any longer when, in the 53rd minute, freshman defender Mckenna Moriarty pierced the back of the ‘Eaters’ net with a header that came off of a corner kick that was sent in from sophomore midfielder Mandy McKeegan. With the goal, UCI was down 1-0.
Throughout the season, when his team had trailed by one, coach Juniper had emphasized the fact that his team must not pause at pivotal moments when the game is still up for grabs and there is plenty of time left on the clock. On Sunday evening, the ‘Eaters responded and fought back. In the 58th minute, Palacios continued on her recent momentum with another great opportunity to score when she zipped through the left side of the field and attempted a quick low shot that ricocheted off Smith. The ball sailed high into the air and was nearly cleaned up by sophomore forward Noel Baham, but came in too hot and ended up propelling off her head and out of bounds.
A minute later, Palacios returned again, rolling down the right side of the field. As an Aggie defender lunged out and attempted to overtake the ball, Palacios quickly sidestepped her, wound her leg up, and sent a driving kick inside the left post. The ‘Eaters were right back in it.
The equalizer proved to be only a momentary victory for UCI as the Aggies were desperate in their attempts to redeem themselves from a 2-0 loss to Long Beach State (11-5-3) three days earlier. UCI conceded the heart-breaking dagger in the 71st minute when fatigue had seemingly overtaken them. With a snap of the fingers, momentum turned its back on the ‘Eaters and allowed Aggie sophomore forward Zuzu Romano to head up the field from the right flank to connect with an unassisted shot from the top of the box, drawing up the score to 2-1.
“I think we had the moment for most of the game,” coach Juniper said. “It was just a couple of moments [where] they found the back of the net. I feel like we had a lot of chances but we just couldn’t find that clean touch in and around the box to set up the finish.”
Regardless of the loss, the UCI had managed to finish with a 3-5 conference record with an extremely young team that consisted of 13 freshman, seven sophomores and six juniors. The six seniors that did hold some collegiate experience had managed team and kept everyone in check, but many were also relatively new to the team.
“[The seniors] have all played a different role,” said coach Juniper. “Some of them have only been here for two years, so that’s what makes it tougher for them. But every game, they come out [with] one more game of experience, [and] that means that they can help lead in different situations. When these players leave, we just wish we had them for one more year because they’re just hitting their stride and figuring some things out, and they’re maturing every day as soccer players and young women. We’re extremely proud of them, and they have all developed in so many ways. They’ll always be esteemed alumni here, and we hope that they can come back and share their experiences with younger players.”
Moving ahead and into the next season, many of the current seniors, including Tobin, have high hopes for the future of the program.
“They are a really young team, so going forward, they are going to do great,” said Tobin. “They are going to really mesh, and so I have hope in them and that they’re going to do great things.”