Before the game, talk was about the number of goals the Cal Poly women’s soccer team was going to allow No. 1 North Carolina, which was coming off consecutive six- and seven-score outputs.
The Mustangs had already fallen to No. 3 UCLA 7-0 in the season opener.
By the end, however, Cal Poly (3-3) had every opportunity to force overtime with the highly touted Tar Heels and felt they could have come away with a victory at Alex G. Spanos Stadium on Friday.
After a scoreless first half, Courtney Jones scored the game-winner early in the second for North Carolina, and Cal Poly had four of its six shots in the furious final 26 minutes, including one by senior Whitney Sisler that skipped in between the three feet of space between the soccer and football crossbars. North Carolina won 1-0.
“I wish I hadn’t hit that one over the post,” said Sisler, who leads the Mustangs with four scores on the season, “and it was so close. “We just came into it saying we just want to be proud about what we did, and I am so proud of us. I feel like a proud mommy. I’m not sad at all. I would have at loved to get a goal or something, but that was great.”
Preparing for a whirlwind of shots from the 20-time national champions, Cal Poly head coach Alex Crozier’s game plan was to bunker down on defense on the Mustangs’ end of the field to limit the offense of the Tar Heels (5-0-1), hoping to cash in on a stray chance here or there. It worked almost too well in the first half. Cal Poly shut out North Carolina but failed to get a shot off on the other side of the field. Both of the Mustangs’ first-half corner kicks were snagged from midair by goalkeeper Hannah Daly.
When Cal Poly started pressing to score late in the game, that’s when Sisler, Bianca Burright and Kacey Held all registered shots on goal. “They had all kinds of chances,” Tar Heels head coach Anson Dorrance said. “I mean, some clear chances inside the box that I thought were finishable. I thought they were a bit unlucky, and honestly, I think getting out of this game, we were lucky to get out of here with a one-nothing victory.”
The prevailing theme with every one of Cal Poly’s chances to score was pressure. Even when the Mustangs were able to get a breakaway, the speed of North Carolina’s defenders in recovery led to hurried shots.
“They were all great chances,” Crozier said. “They were under so much pressure. They chase you, they’re on your heels and their keeper makes a lot of saves. She’s in good position. You’ve got to hit a good shot to score a goal. We didn’t get that, but we did everything up to that.”
On the other side, the Tar Heels pounded 19 shots, eight on goal, and Cal Poly goalkeeper Brooke Gauvin grabbed seven saves.
They almost got a goal in the final seconds of the first half, when Gauvin stretched for a loose ball near the right post.
Gauvin was unable to get ahold of it, and North Carolina’s Elizabeth Burchenal found herself lining up a shot as the stadium’s public address announcer was counting down the seconds to halftime.
Senior defender Carrie Andrews came up with the deflection in front of the open goal to preserve the scoreless tie going into the half.
“It felt like a tornado,” Cal Poly sophomore defender Shandon Rovetta said, “but I think when you’re going against a team where there’s so much hype about them, you go in thinking you have nothing to lose. So, you work really hard for each other.”
It only took Jones, the daughter of former San Francisco 49ers tight end Brent Jones, just 3 minutes, 38 seconds in the second half to put North Carolina on the board when she powered an unassisted shot over Gauvin from 20-yards out.
Being tied at the half was an uncomfortable feeling for the Tar Heels, but the goal did not swing the momentum all that much.
“When we’re 0-0 at halftime, it’s not a good feeling for anyone,” Courtney Jones said. “So we were just hoping to get that tone goal if not more and get that win.
“I honestly thought they were going to keep fighting hard, which they did. Because they fought so well in the first half that I figured there’s no way they’re stopping now after one goal. They’re playing with their hearts, and when the No. 1 team visits your school, you’re not backing down.”
The feel on the Cal Poly sideline was mostly positive. The Mustangs were not the victim of the kind of embarrassing result they suffered against UCLA, and they felt like they had their chances to beat the most prolific program in the history of women’s soccer.
That didn’t stop Crozier, though, from being a little disappointed.
“Right now I am,” Crozier said. “We had a chance to win the game, so that’s disappointing. Maybe at the end of the season, I’ll look back and say this was nice, but right now, a win would have been nicer.”