The Cal Poly men’s soccer team is one of three guaranteed to play in the Big West Conference’s postseason tournament, an automatic qualifier for the NCAA Tournament.
And of those three, which includes No. 3 UC Santa Barbara and No. 20 UC Irvine, unranked Cal Poly is the one that needs it most.
“That’s our only way in,” Cal Poly head coach Paul Holocher said. “Our only way into the NCAA playoffs is with the automatic qualifier. But that’s what’s great about the tournament. We’re the only conference in the west that has a tournament like this.
If we were in the WCC or the Pac-10, we’d be out of it right now.”
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The Mustangs showed they could go blow for blow with No. 3 UC Santa Barbara in a scoreless tie after two overtimes at Alex G. Spanos Stadium on Wednesday.
Cal Poly (8-9-2, 6-3-1 Big West) is out of the running for the conference regular season championship. The Gauchos (13-3-2, 7-1-1 Big West) clinched that crown with the tie.
Going into the showdown between the top two teams in the conference standings, the Mustangs still had a slim chance to leapfrog the Gauchos in the Big West Conference standings.
Cal Poly needed to beat UC Santa Barbara by two goals, a rarity considering the Gauchos have only lost by such a score once this season, and hope for a UC Santa Barbara loss to UC Davis in the season finale Saturday.
Instead, the Mustangs got a much more familiar result in what was their regular season finale Wednesday night.
Battling the Gauchos for all 110 minutes, unranked Cal Poly did not get the upset it was looking for but earned one point in the Big West standings with a scoreless double-overtime draw.
Here’s the familiar part: It’s the third time in the past four meetings that the teams have been tied after two 10-minute overtime periods, the fourth match in the past five that have gone to overtime.
It was also the fourth time since 2007 that the two teams have drawn one of the top-10 largest regular-season attendance figures in NCAA history.
The 9,824 announced attendance was good enough to rank seventh all-time. It was the largest of year for Cal Poly and second in the Big West only to UC Santa Barbara’s nonconference match with Indiana, which was ranked No. 9 at the time.
Both the Mustangs and the Gauchos seemed content with Wednesday’s draw.
UC Santa Barbara even began to scale back its attack late in the game, knowing it could clinch the conference title with a tie.
“Once overtime just started, the second overtime especially,” Gauchos goalkeeper Sam Hayden said, “we were like if we get the goal, that’s fine, but we’ve just got to defend for 10 more minutes to pull out a tie and then we can win conference and host playoffs.”
Cal Poly, though failing to unseat UC Santa Barbara at the top and earn the No. 1 seed for the Big West Tournament, remained one point ahead of UC Irvine (13-5-0, 6-3-0 Big West) for second place.
The Mustangs have to root for an Anteaters loss to Cal State Northridge on Saturday. A UC Irvine win or tie would lock Cal Poly into third place.
Yet, the Mustangs were not unhappy with the tie.
Cal Poly was not nearly as passive as it was in the first half of a 1-0 loss at UC Santa Barbara in early October.
The Mustangs allowed just 10 shot to the Gauchos, one in the first half, after UC Santa Barbara racked up 22 shots in the first matchup.
“We didn’t want to make the same mistake as last time, letting them get into their rhythm,” said Cal Poly sophomore Wes Feighner, who nearly won the game with a diving header that Hayden just barely kicked outside the right post in the 84th minute, “Being on our home field in front of all of all our fans, we just decided to take the game to them.”