SANTA BARBARA — As the final whistle blew, the Big West champions ran across the field to thank their legions of supporters who traveled two hours to cheer them on.
For the previous 90 minutes, the dozens of supporters yelled like mad as they watched the Cal Poly women's soccer team return the love via tough defense and two second-half goals from Tiffany Gummow and Kristina Condon-Sherwood to beat host UC Santa Barbara 2-0 at Harder Stadium on Sunday.
Riding the hot hands (and feet) of senior goalkeeper Coral Hoover, the Mustangs (13-5-0 overall, 7-1 in Big West) have now won seven games in a row, six by shutout to win their first conference regular season championship since 2003. The Gauchos fell to 8-8-2 and 5-2-1. As the tournament’s top seed, Cal Poly will host UC Irvine on Thursday night in a conference playoff semifinal game. Not bad for a team that was picked third prior to the season. And according to Mustangs coach Alex Crozier, they are only getting better.
“I think it’s great because it's been a few years since we’ve won a championship,” Crozier said. “And for the team to go as far as they’ve gone this year with a game like today, where we started five freshmen. But they are playing well together. I was telling someone earlier I don’t know if we’ve started the same two lineups two games in a row for whatever reason.
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“This season has been very rewarding overall because it has been a really great group. It’s been a while since we’ve had a group this fun. They are hard working, they are good people, and they play good soccer. I enjoy being around them.”
After a scoreless first half that had scoring opportunities for both teams, former San Luis Obispo High star Afton Thulin floated a cross from the right side of the field 25 minutes into the second half to Gummow, who had beaten her defender. The sophomore pirouetted on her left foot and shot with her right past keeper Tammy Lenham for the game’s first goal.
“After I held the defender off and turned to my left and kind of slotted it,” Gummow said. “I really wanted to score today especially because we really wanted to take it to them for last year (a 4-2 Poly loss).
“Throughout the whole week I was thinking how much I wanted to play at home for the conference tournament and knew that if I got the opportunity, I needed to score to help my team.”
Meanwhile, Hoover was making several stops amidst the 24 shots she faced from the likes of conference leading goal scorer Kailyn Kugler. But the balls missed their mark or Hoover (six saves) would turn them away.
“Coral made a couple of great saves, but we’re so used to it because she’s been doing that for us all year,” Crozier said.
Despite the lead, Cal Poly had several forays into the Gaucho defense by the likes of forward Morgan Miller. This produced a penalty in the 88th minute just outside the box where Condon Sherwood launched a free kick from 30 yards out into the net that set off the first of two celebrations.
“I’m as proud of them as I could be of them right now,” Hoover said. “Especially the young ones stepping up big and the older ones are leading by example showing them what to do and setting the tone really well and then things just fell into place.”
Across the field, Gauchos coach Paul Stumpf praised his opponent while looking ahead.
“They’ve had five shutout wins in a row because of great defense, great goal keeping and a team that took advantage of their opportunities,” Stumpf said. “Hopefully we’ll get another crack at them (in the final).”
All is not lost for UC Santa Barbara. The Gauchos qualified as the third seed for the tournament and will play at Cal State Northridge on Thursday. But this beautiful Santa Barbara day belonged to the Mustangs and their faithful.