Just two weeks ago, it looked like the Cal Poly women’s soccer team would run away with the Big West Conference regular-season championship.
Sunday, the Mustangs were fighting just to stay in the top four in the standings.
As much as a disappointing slide as it was to win just once in the next four matches after a 5-0-0 start, it was also a testament to the strength of the top of the conference.
Four teams had a chance at first place on the final day of the regular season, including Cal Poly.
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The Mustangs ended up in a second-place tie but safely secured their spot in this week’s Big West tournament with a 1-0 victory over UC Santa Barbara at Alex G. Spanos Stadium
“It’s never been like this up to the last day with four teams able to win conference,” said Cal Poly head coach Alex Crozier, in his 21st season guiding the Mustangs.
“There were years where we got into the tournament with 13 points. That wouldn’t have happened this year. There’s a lot of parity. Every team’s good, and just like this game here, it’s all tight.”
Cal Poly (9-6-3, 6-1-2 Big West) finished with 20 points, and Cal State Northridge (9-4-6, 6-1-2 Big West) kept pace with a 1-0 overtime victory over Long Beach State to tie for second.
Cal State Fullerton (10-8-0, 7-2-0) beat Pacific 4-1 to clinch the Big West title with 21 points. UC Irvine (9-8-3, 5-3-1 Big West) finished fourth with 18 points, and the 49ers (12-6-0, 5-3-0 Big West) were left out of the four-team conference tournament with 15 points.
“We knew we had to leave everything on the field because if we lost, we were done,” redshirt freshman forward Sara Epps said. “Last weekend, we had a rough weekend. We went into the game expecting to win, and it didn’t happen.”
After nearly 72 minutes of scoreless action, Epps skillfully knocked the ball away from a Gauchos defender to set up true freshman forward Elise Krieghoff for what proved to be the winning goal.
It was the fifth assist of the season for Epps and the 11th goal for Krieghoff, who moved into a tie for fifth place on the Mustangs’ all-time single-season scoring list. Her 11 goals are the most since Sharon Day finished with the same total in 2004.
Though Kolleen Kassis has the all-time record with 15 in 1992, she also scored 11 in 1994. Gina Oceguera had 11 twice, in 1995 and 1998.
Krieghoff needs three more goals to move into a second-place tie with Oceguera (1997) and Wendy Jones, who had 14 goals in 1992 and 1993.
It’s a really big honor,” Krieghoff said. “I’m going to take some credit for it, but most of it goes to my team because they set me up in those positions and put me in those positions to score.
“As the season progressed, people were looking for me to score, and I took that in, not as a pressure, but like an expectation from the team, too. It really helps you win when your teammates have your back, and they help out just as much.”
Krieghoff and Epps seemed to hit their stride playing together in a 4-3 overtime victory over Long Beach State. Each player scored twice, and Epps got a feel for how to set up her first-year teammate.
That victory improved Cal Poly to 5-0-0 on Oct. 7, but after that match, the Mustangs settled for ties in two of the next three and lost to Cal State Fullerton 4-0 last week.
Sunday’s win was the answer needed to keep the season going, and the Mustangs will play Cal State Northridge on Thursday at the Big West Tournament in Irvine. The winner moves to the final, where the conference’s automatic NCAA Tournament bid will be decided.
Crozier said the team was disappointed to have lost the regular-season title, but all that matters now is that the Mustangs are still alive.
“We knew after we were 5-0, every team was going after us because we had everything to lose,” Krieghoff said. “Once we started to tie and got our first loss, we were like, ‘Oh man, we could really get knocked out of the tournament.’ It was a really big wakeup call.”