When Steve Sampson took over as head coach of the Cal Poly men’s soccer team last winter, he envisioned the Mustangs competing for Big West Conference championships and NCAA tournament berths.
With the nonconference portion of their schedule now in the rearview mirror, the Mustangs have positioned themselves to do just that in Sampson’s first year on the bench.
Cal Poly begins its 10-game Big West Conference schedule at 7 p.m. Thursday at Cal State Northridge and will face UC Irvine at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Although the Mustangs’ 5-2-1 overall record is the best among Big West competitors, Sampson pointed to an early tie against Gonzaga and a 1-0 loss to Santa Clara as games the team should have won.
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He also mentioned the 4-1 loss at UCLA on Sept. 18 as one of the defining moments of the nonconference season. Cal Poly saw a 1-0 lead slip away when the Bruins poured in four unanswered goals in the second half.
“We just have to do a better job of playing smarter and making it more difficult for the opponent,” said Sampson, the former U.S. Men’s National Team head coach. “So we took away that from that game, and I think that’s really helped us.”
The Mustangs went on to defeat College of Charleston 2-1 and shutout Loyola Marymount 2-0 in the final tune up before Big West play begins.
During the victory over Loyola Marymount last weekend, Cal Poly did not allow a shot on goal for the first time in senior goalkeeper Wade Hamilton’s career. It was the 56th consecutive start for Hamilton, the 2014 Big West Conference goalkeeper of the year.
“I think these preseason games have proven that we have one of the best goalkeepers in the country in Wade Hamilton,” Sampson said. “That the understanding between our back four is very good, and that we’re doing a much better job of getting players in behind the ball when the opponent has it.”
Having allowed eight goals in eight games, Cal Poly has developed into the stingiest defense among Big West teams with a 0.97 goals against average.
Sampson was quick to credit the time spent last winter and spring forging a new identity defensively after being known as one of the top scoring teams in the conference the past two years.
“It’s not just the back four or the goalkeeper,” senior defender Kip Colvey said. “It’s the whole team defending as a unit, which has been a big improvement in what we’ve seen in past seasons. That’s our biggest strength.”
Having a pair of first-team all-conference midfielders in Matt Lagrassa and Chase Minter in the mix hasn’t hurt, either.
Lagrassa has scored three goals to lead the team, and Minter, the 2014 Big West midfielder of the year, has scored twice and tallied two assists.
With 16 goals and 37 points in his career, Lagrassa is the Big West’s active leader in both categories. Assuming he plays in five more matches this fall, Lagrassa will become the ninth Mustang in program history to play in more than 70 matches.
“I think I base my individual performance and success pretty strongly off how this team does,” said Lagrassa, an Elk Grove native. “I’m one of the older guys, I consider myself a leader of this team, so when we’re doing well I feel like I’m doing my job well.”
Lagrassa said the Mustangs have struggled in Big West play in the past, including last year’s forgettable finish. Cal Poly lost four of its past five matches and did not qualify for the conference tournament, leaving a sour taste in many of the seniors' mouths heading into the offseason.
The hiring of Sampson breathed new life into the program, which is ranked 18th in the NCAA RPI this week, believed to be the highest in Cal Poly history.
“It doesn’t matter what we’ve done beforehand,” Sampson said. “… Conference is all about battling opponents. For a lot of these programs, it’s very personal.
“We have to understand that now is when the dance really starts.”
When Cal Poly and Cal State Northridge played last season in San Luis Obispo, then-freshman Kaba Alkebulan scored twice in a 2-1 overtime victory.
That win broke a six-match losing streak against the Matadors, who hold a 15-9-6 edge in the all-time series. The Mustangs have not won in Northridge since the 2010 season.
“Big West is obviously just a step up from every preseason that we’ve done,” Colvey said. “The games are a lot more intense. The teams are all familiar with each other so they tend to know your tendencies, so there’s a bit more strategy going on out there.”