Four days after celebrating their senior day by hoisting up the Big West conference championship trophy in front of an ecstatic capacity crowd, UC Irvine women’s soccer (10-5-4, 4-2-1) saw their postseason quest come to a sudden end at Northridge’s Performance Soccer Field Thursday with a 2-1 loss in their conference tournament semifinals matchup against Cal State Fullerton (10-4-3, 3-2-1) — the very team that they had defeated for the regular season first place prize.
Looking to avenge their season-closing loss against UCI, one that had subsequently dropped them to a fourth place seeding heading into the semifinals, Fullerton came out of the grudge match with a rapid-paced offense that pushed the ‘Eaters back for the majority of the evening. The Titans went on to outshoot the conference champs 12-6. The Titans also held the advantage in corner, 8-1.
UCI had an uncustomary quiet night, stringing together just a single shot attempt to open the match and five to close. No ‘Eater had registered more than a single attempt and of the six who registered a shot, only two landed on goal.
Holding on to possession for the majority of the opening half, Fullerton jumped out with a 5-1 shot advantage over the ‘Eaters. As their first shot was cleared and their second went wide, Fullerton’s third attempt clinked off the crossbar before they finally came through in their fifth and final attempt. In the 31st minute, sophomore forward Atlanta Primus controlled a short touch pass atop the box and deceptively back-heeled it to senior midfielder Kaycee Hoover who was left alone for a clear strike in which she sent flying high over UCI’s sophomore forward Maddie Newsom for the game’s first goal. The conversion marked the fifth for Hoover on the season.
Out of the half, Fullerton did not let off and carried on from where they left off. Three minutes into second period, Primus went for her own goal attempt with a shot from the right flank, but Newsom read it and dove for the save.
UCI junior midfielder Lili Andino, who struck home the game-winning goal that locked in the Big West title for the ‘Eaters Sunday, nearly fired in the equalizer when she found herself with a clear shot atop the box in the 51st minute, but Fullerton senior keeper Morgan Bertsch was there to collect it.
After trading initial shots, an ‘Eater clearance was botched and the ball subsequently fell to senior forward Maribell Morales who lobbed the shot from 30 yards out back toward UCI’s net. Newsom managed to get a hand on it but the ball deflected out of her grasp and into the net to hand Fullerton the insurance and a 2-0 lead.
Heading into real crunch time and in dire need of a goal, the ‘Eaters cranked up their tempo and attempted to match Fullerton’s aggressive offense.
Their push would materialize in the 83rd minute as senior forward Kiana Palacios teamed up with freshman forward Sydney Carr to cut the deficit to one. Dribbling down from near center field, Palacios found Carr on the right flank where she collected, faked her defender with a slight jab, and flung it in with her left foot.
Carr let out an emphatic cheer but had to cut it short as the ‘Eaters attempted to increase their frantic play for the ball while Fullerton did everything they could to milk all the time they could off the clock.
With Fullerton doing an effective job at keeping the ball away from UCI, the ‘Eaters failed to register another look at the net; a final last-minute turn and fire from junior midfielder Shelby Lee would go wide right before Fullerton cleared it out, sent the ball up, and dribbled out the clock to cap the afternoon off at 2-1.
As Fullerton advanced to play host CSUN (9-4-7, 4-1-3), who defeated UC Riverside (8-11-2, 5-3), 3-1, later that night, the loss marked the end of the 2017 campaign for the ‘Eaters.
Despite the early postseason exit, UCI had a highly successful run with a group of talented, high-caliber players of different levels.
Amongst the graduating seniors, Noel Baham was named Big West Offensive Player of the Year with six goals and six assists for 18 points. After breaking out last year with six goals and eight assists, Baham caps off her career as an ‘Eater with 12 goals, 14 assists, and 43 points.
Fellow starting forward Kiana Palacios was named Big West Midfielder of the Year with six goals and five assists for 17 points. Palacios led the team in conversions and shot attempts during sophomore and junior years; she caps off her career in the blue and yellow with 172 shot attempts, 24 goals, 14 assists, and 62 points. As the only player in program history to split time during the season playing with the ‘Eaters as well as the Mexican National team, Palacios is likely to continue playing professionally.
Baham and Palacios along with fellow seniors Grayson Galbraith and Andrea Mensen were all named to the All-Big West first team.
Newcomer Sydney Carr earned Big West conference Freshman of the Year honors, only the second first-year player to earn the honor since Cami Privett (2011). Finishing the year with four goals and five assists for 13 points — third behind Baham and Palacios — in 19 starts, Carr is expected to be a breakout star for the ‘Eaters moving forward.
Carr, along with freshman Clare Grouwinkel, was also named to the All-Freshman team.
Sophomore keeper Maddie Newsom took home honorable mentions for the All-Big West team. She led all keepers in the conference in minutes played (1876) and save percentage (0.830).
At the helm, head coach Scott Juniper earned his second Big West Coach of the Year honor. In his 11 years with the ‘Eaters, he has taken the ‘Eaters to the Big West tournament eight times and has registered seven 10-win seasons. Coach Juniper became the winningest coach in the program’s history this year with 121 victories under his belt.
Collecting their second ever Big West regular season title this year, the ‘Eaters are set to host the 2018 conference tournament at Anteater Stadium.