When the Cal Poly men’s soccer team’s crop of seniors was freshmen three years ago, the group helped take the Mustangs to their first NCAA Tournament under head coach Paul Holocher, and the chances of a return trip were promising.
With a 1-0 loss to UC Irvine at Alex G. Spanos Stadium on Tuesday night and a crushing own goal elsewhere in the Big West Conference, those seniors saw any last chance of another berth in their careers crash with a thud.
“With all the guys that we had high expectations for this year, the seniors, it was our last year,” senior defender Cameron Walters said. “A lot of us had a taste of the NCAA playoffs as freshmen or redshirt freshmen, and we’ve been itching to get back there this whole time. We thought we were going to make a push for it this year.”
Said Holocher: “We really hoped that they could go again. Getting to the tournament is not an easy thing. It’s not a given. There’s over 200 programs fighting for it every year, and to get there you have to have a combination of terrific players, but a little bit of luck. There’s been a lot of games where we haven’t had that little bit of luck. We gotta try to find a way to get there again.”
There was no sign of luck on a heartbreaking night for Cal Poly (6-8-3, 3-5-1 Big West).
The Mustangs were still alive after the defeat to the No. 14 Anteaters (14-5-1, 6-3-1 Big West) — which was won on a 56th-minute breakaway goal by Miguel Ibarra — but a 3-2 overtime victory by UC Santa Barbara over Cal State Northridge knocked the Mustangs out less than an hour later.
Cal Poly needed the Gauchos and Matadors to tie to stay in contention for a spot in the Big West Tournament, which awards an NCAA Tournament spot to its winner.
That would have made Friday’s 7 p.m. TV (Fox Soccer Channel) showdown between the Mustangs and Gauchos in Santa Barbara a potential elimination match.
The Mustangs were only seconds away from seeing that happen.
Cal State Northridge scored an own goal in the 109th minute, 19 seconds before a draw was declared, and UC Santa Barbara secured a spot in the Big West Tournament while single-handedly eliminating both the Matadors and the Mustangs.
It significantly lessens the importance of Friday’s match at Harder Stadium, where Cal Poly has gone winless in 13 straight and hasn’t won since 1998.
It could have been a different story if the Mustangs had somehow found a way to ride the momentum of a 2-1 home victory over UC Santa Barbara on Oct. 14.
Cal Poly could still be in the mix had the Mustangs pulled out just one victory since then.
Instead, Cal Poly has gone 0-3-1 in the past four matches and watched its already anemic goals-per-game average dip even lower.
Scoring only once in the three matches coming into Tuesday’s shutout loss, the Mustangs ranked 168th out of 200 Division I teams in the country with 15 goals in 16 games.
Their best chance Tuesday was a one-on-one chance by Kyle Montgomery in the second half, but UC Irvine goalkeeper Andrew Fontain made the diving save to deny the senior.
Scoring has “been our challenge all year,” Holocher said. “We feel like we’ve tried almost everything. Being a little bit more direct in our play, being a little bit more patient in our play and our possession, but at the end of the day, we didn’t put away the few chances that we had, and you have to put them away.
“I thought we created three or four here that were good, but again, that’s not enough to win a bunch of soccer games.”
The winless streak has also coincided with a season-ending knee injury to senior defender Wes Feighner, who was hurt in the victory over UC Santa Barbara and made an honorary start in Tuesday’s home finale before being subbed out to start the match.
Sophomore Ronald Medrano Williams has gotten good reviews filling in for Feighner, but the Mustangs have missed their two-year captain and four-year starter.
“Since he’s gone down, it’s been a rough patch for us,” Walters said. “His presence on the field is undeniable. He’s a shutdown outside back. We put him on an island over there, and he does his job.”