After battling through 110 minutes of action in a highly contested match that saw to double overtime periods, two goals on 33 attempts, and a pair of teams clawing to keep their tournament dreams alive, the Big West Conference women’s soccer semifinals between UC Irvine (13-6-2, 5-2-1) and Cal State Fullerton (8-10-1, 5-3) came down to the bare essentials of the game: Goal. Keeper. Ball. Shooter.
And in her role as the final shooter for the ‘Eaters in the penalty kick shoot-outs, junior midfielder Grayson Galbraith took a deep breath and stood unconcerned, unwavering to the nagging strep throat and the remnants of mononucleosis that had kept her sidelined for the team’s closing conference game–a loss to the very same Fullerton squad that stood in front of her at the given moment.
Behind wailing Fullerton fans, her calm teammates at center field, and the breeze that had steadily set into George Allen Field, Galbraith mustered a few steps forward, bent her left foot into the turf, and reeled her right foot back.
In true adherence to the fundamentals of the game, everything transpired, as it should.
Shooter connected with ball. Keeper dived left. Goal sent into the upper net.
The play took no longer than three seconds, but the reverberations of the shot, the unhinged delight of Galbraith and her teammates, who collapsed into her arms, held the moment in what seemed like eternity.
“I’ve prepared all my life for that,” Galbraith said of her game-winning PK. “Earlier in the week we addressed it and it was kind of just like regardless of what happens, the sun will rise tomorrow and that took away my nerves I think and it was just ‘place it and let’s go.’”
As the game sat pat at 1-1 following four periods of play, UCI and Fullerton’s semifinal matchup headed to a final penalty kick shootout.
Senior forward Sammie James got the ‘Eaters rolling, sending a liner straight through Titan senior keeper Stuart Jennifer.
However, the Titans would answer right back with a conversion of their own and when senior defender Kelsey Texeira went wide on her attempt, the ‘Eaters took a step back.
With a chance to turn the pressure on UCI, the Titans botched a shot that went high as junior defender Andrea Mensen and sophomore midfielder Brittany Nguyen gained some separation with two successful attempts through the net.
As the fifth and final shooter, Galbraith’s PK sealed the final tally at 4-2 to carry the ‘Eaters past the Titans and into the Big West Championships Sunday against Long Beach State.
“That’s one of the most memorable games I’ve been a part of as well as one of the most memorable teams to be able to coach,” head coach Scott Juniper said. “
Conceding an early goal to Fullerton in the 28th minute, the ‘Eaters powered back a little over ten minutes later and knotted the game up on a header from senior defender Kesley Texeira who was fed within the middle of the box off a corner kick sent in from redshirt sophomore Reema Bezeih.
With clean slates coming into the second half, both teams wrestled for momentum and while the ‘Eaters would eventually come away with 8-4 shot advantage, the Titans collapsed and secured the box on three close occasions where UCI threatened to take the lead.
On UCI’s defensive end, keeper Maddie Newsom jumped out and rushed to challenge Titan forwards further out off the box, colliding with a few players on a number of attempts for a go at the ball.
“Maddie is Maddie,” coach Juniper said. “I’ve always been a coach that wants my players to play [with] their own personalities. We take those personalities and we try to make them the very best versions of themselves that they can be so we’re not going to tell Maddie to back off [because] a lot of her opponents through this season…they’re the one’s who need to back off because they’re over aggressive with her…but she’s very strong [and] she’s an outstanding young goal keeper.”
Newsom secured three shots on the night, including Fullerton’s best look in the period at the top of the 51st minute.
When 90 minutes were not enough, the game headed into double overtime. As the ‘Eaters dominated the entirety of the first extra time period with four unanswered shots, the Titans tugged back in the second and final extra time period, knocking on the ‘Eaters door with four unanswered shots on their own.
On their final attempts to put the game away, Fullerton pushed the ‘Eaters all the way into their box where they sent a barrage of shots that threatened to go home. Relentless and UCI’s backline formed a sturdy fort that just held out the Titans long enough to hear the horn.
“The [backline] was unbelievable,” coach Juniper said. “I lost count of how many times [Fullerton] just put a big long throw into our box…but I think what you saw today was 10…11 players that were throwing themselves in front of that ball…you could just see that they were prepared to do whatever it takes to stop that ball from crossing that line.”
In the PK shootout, UCI buckled down and sent four of their five shots home to earn a place in the Big West Conference Championship, which will take place on Sunday evening.
Slotted against Long Beach State (9-6-5, 4-1-3), who completed an upset against Cal State Northridge (11-5-5, 6-1-1) hours prior to UCI’s victory, the game will surely draw a home field advantage of sorts for the black and gold. The ‘Eaters, however, believe that they will not be fazed.
“It’s nothing,” Galbraith said of the pressures of playing against Long Beach on their home turf Sunday. “We’ve been to Texas A&M…probably the worst place to play college soccer at so it’s nothing. It’s exciting just to have a crowd out [but] at the end of the day…it’s just awesome to see everyone come together but then after the game regardless of win or lose…we’re all playing what we love so it’s just exciting.
Having competing against Long Beach that ended in a double-overtime draw back in early October, the black and blue rivalry will resumes, but this time, with elevated stakes as the winner of Sunday’s match will earn a coveted spot into the NCAA Tournament.