Needing to produce two points in the Big West Conference standings during the final two matches of the regular season, the Cal Poly men’s soccer team took care of half that total Wednesday night.
The No. 20-ranked Mustangs played visiting UC Davis to a scoreless draw before a crowd of 1,459 inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium in the final home game of the regular season. With the tie, Cal Poly earned one point in the Big West Conference standings and earned an automatic berth in the conference tournament.
Conference-leading UC Santa Barbara defeated Sacramento State 2-1 Wednesday evening, giving the Gauchos a three-point lead over the Mustangs in the North Division. If Cal Poly defeats Sacramento State as well this weekend and UC Santa Barbara falls to UC Davis, the Mustangs will secure their first conference championship in 22 Division I seasons.
Because Cal Poly beat UC Santa Barbara at home and tied on the road — taking four of a possible six points in the season series — the Mustangs hold the tiebreaker with the Gauchos.
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After failing to qualify for the Big West tournament last fall, Wednesday’s draw provided a brief moment of relief for a Mustangs team that has NCAA Tournament aspirations.
“If you think the Santa Barbara games are exciting, these are the same caliber, the same kind of intensity, the same kind of passion,” said Chase Minter, one of the team’s four seniors honored before kickoff. “I would really encourage a lot of people to get out here because it’s probably going to be some of the better soccer you see this year.”
Minter, Wade Hamilton, Matt Lagrassa and Kip Colvey enjoyed the final regular season matches of their careers and helped Cal Poly complete its first unbeaten home season (6-0-2) in nine years playing at Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
The Mustangs are 9-3-5 overall and 4-1-4 against Big West opponents heading into the final match of the regular season against Sacramento State at 2 p.m. Saturday. If Cal Poly finishes second in the North Division, the team would host a first-round Big West tournament game Nov. 7.
“For us to play in front of our fans is, you know, phenomenal,” first-year head coach Steve Sampson said. “It gives us a good chance of playing with a lot more energy and also to stay at home and for them to sleep in their own beds. And the fact that we haven’t lost here, I think we can draw upon that.”
Considered one of the best units in program history, Cal Poly’s defense was stellar from the opening kick Wednesday night. The Mustangs held UC Davis (7-8-3, 3-3-3) without a shot in the opening 65 minutes of play and finished the match with a commanding 18-3 advantage in shots. Cal Poly has surrendered just 16 goals in 17 matches this season, and remains on pace to set program records for fewest goals allowed (17) and fewest opponent goals scored per game (0.94).
Sampson said the Mustangs ability to defend allows them to compete with any team in the country, something he believes will pay dividends in the coming weeks.
“I think it makes us a contender,” Sampson said. “Obviously we’ve got to do well in the conference tournament to continue to prove to the NCAA championship committee that we belong in the NCAAs. But I think everything that we’ve earned is because of the effort of these guys.”
With the score tied 0-0 midway through the second half, Cal Poly started playing more aggressive offensively and got a handful of good scoring opportunities. Junior Bjorn Sandberg nearly headed in a goal off a pass from Minter in the 71st minute, but the ball sailed wide right.
Four minutes later, Lagrassa set up Colvey with a nifty pass to the left side of the box and a clear look at the net. Colvey’s shot attempt missed high and to the right, however, and the Mustangs weren’t able to generate another scoring opportunity during the rest of regulation.
In the second overtime period, Cal Poly produced six corner kicks and seven shots but was unable to finish in front of the net.
“I think we just came out aggressive with a better mentality,” Minter said. “We were really trying to take the game to them. I think that was something that we needed maybe a little more of throughout the 90 minutes.”