Selected to finish seventh overall in the preseason polls, the UC Irvine women’s soccer team (13-6-2, 5-2-1) had defied expectations by going on a four month tear that had landed them a second place seed in the conference tournament and just short of taking home the regular season title.
On Thursday evening’s semifinal game hosted at Long Beach State’s George Allen Field, UCI continued to prove the type of potential that many had overlooked. Battling back from an early deficit against Cal State Fullerton (8-10-1, 5-3), the ‘Eaters managed to tie up the game.
When the match went into a PK shootout, the squad dug deep and would come out with a 4-2 victory to advance to the finals where they were set to face off against Long Beach State (9-6-5, 4-1-3) for the cup.
However, UCI’s season and hopes of raising the cup would come to an abrupt end Sunday as the 49ers sprinted out of the pitch with a quick and aggressive attack that ultimately overwhelmed the ‘Eaters.
Falling down by three before the half, UCI could not buy a clean shot as Long Beach secured their 3-0 shutout to raise the cup.
“We didn’t get the result, but all of us went out there, especially in the second half, and gave it all we had together as a team,” senior defender Kelsey Texeira said following the finale of the Big West Conference Championships.
Despite the loss, fellow senior Sammie James also reflected on the season and sees promise in the team’s future.
“I’m excited for what’s to come from this team,” James said. “We finished strong [and] I know that last half really showed what we can do. Unfortunately, it is the end of the road for me, but I’m still UCI and stoked to come out and see what they can do next year.”
Having competed against Long Beach back in early October— a game that ended in a double-overtime draw — the black and blue rivalry resumed Sunday afternoon, but this time, with elevated stakes as the winner of match would not only raise the Big West cup but also earn a coveted spot into the NCAA Tournament.
The meeting also marked the third time that the two squads had met in the conference finals, the prior games occurring back in 2010 and 2011, both of which went in favor of Long Beach.
From the opening minute on, the 49ers took hold of the reins and sparingly relinquished their aggressive offensive push.
After continuously probing around the ‘Eaters box, Long Beach eventually struck gold in the fifth minute when freshman forward Kaitlin Fregulia collected a corner kick from freshman defender Chloe Froment and directed it into the ‘Eaters’ post for an early 1-0 lead.
The ‘Eaters attempted to fire back but were suffocated by a collapsing Long Beach defense that would break into and intercept UCI’s passes and touches.
In the 24th minute, the 49ers blistered forward with a quick break. Senior Mimi Akaogi led the charge and weaved a touch to senior midfielder Mimi Rangel who tapped it straight to junior forward midfielder Jessica Vincent. Reading the play, Newsome jumped out and slid for the ball, but Vincent had already descended upon the goal and cracked it straight through the net.
It would only take Long Beach a little under two minutes to return into the ‘Eater’s box. After drawing a foul from Texeira, junior forward Ashley Gonzalez earned a penalty kick and sent it in the insurance to bring the lead up to 3-0
At the half, coach Juniper and the coaching staff stayed out on the field, hoping to turn the momentum around.
“That’s not a team that I recognize in the first half,” said Juniper to Fox Sports Prime Ticket. “We’ve got a lot of things to fix, which is a good thing … that’s not us and we could be a lot better than that. We’re going to be changing the shape up a little bit … changing the personnel a little bit, and we should be showing a little bit more fire in the first part of [the second half].”
UCI would come out firing and playing with much more urgency and energy. Galbraith kicked off the shooting with an attempt that went high over the post as Mensen took advantage of a Long Beach foul and followed up Galbraith with a shot that was collected by 49ers’ senior keeper Ashton McKeown.
Despite placing a pair of looks on target, McKeown went on to clean up the box, logging four saves on the afternoon, to shutout the ‘Eaters for the Big West Conference Cup.
While the loss brings UCI’s all-time Big West Conference finals record to 1-4, the season has been a notable one for the ‘Eaters, who finished with 13 wins on the year, marking the most that the program has seen since 2011. Their return to the Big West Tournament was the first for the squad since 2013.
“You look at our season in its entirety [and] its difficult right now when all you can think about is what happened in the last 90 minutes,” coach Juniper said. “But I said to these guys after the game that now’s the chance to look back and really appreciate how well they’ve done. We try to look at the very next game so now is that time to really take that time to enjoy the success that they’ve had. It really was a huge season for them. We’re coming off a couple of years where I felt we’ve underachieved. These guys have created a winning culture, and they can be proud of this season and its entirety.”