When the NCAA men’s soccer tournament field is announced less than two weeks from now, the Cal Poly men’s soccer team fully expect to see their name listed among the 48 participants.
Hosting its first Big West Conference tournament match since 2009 on Saturday afternoon at Alex G. Spanos Stadium, Cal Poly made Justin Dhillon’s fifth-minute goal stand up in a 1-0 opening-round win against UC Irvine.
The No. 23-ranked Mustangs, who finished second to UC Santa Barbara in the North Division of the Big West standings, advanced to play South Division champion Cal State Fullerton in the tournament semifinals at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Titan Stadium.
“Regardless of what happens going forward, I think what we have done over the course of the season and the fact that we have a very good RPI makes it very difficult for the NCAA committee to leave us out,” first-year head coach Steve Sampson said. “I think we deserve the right to go regardless of what happens in the next two matches.”
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Entering Saturday’s match, Cal Poly (11-3-5) was ranked No. 28 in the country in RPI, trailing only No. 17 UC Santa Barbara among Big West teams. Holding off an aggressive Anteaters squad that reached the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals last season could add to the Mustangs’ tournament résumé.
Cal Poly wasted no time establishing a 1-0 lead four minutes into the match. Senior Chase Minter, who was named Big West midfielder of the year for the second consecutive season earlier this week, lofted a pass from 40 yards out toward George Grote.
Grote, a true freshman forward from Huntington Beach, redirected the pass to Dhillon and the junior pushed a header past UC Irvine goalkeeper Elliot Farmer. It was Grote’s sixth assist of the season, which is tied for the team lead, and Dhillon’s third goal of the year.
“It’s the Big West tournament — every game you could go home,” Dhillon said. “Obviously both teams are going to be playing with their whole heart, their whole season’s on the line and everything comes down to every little detail that we’re putting into the games.
“There’s definitely a high level of intensity.”
That much was clear, given the five yellow cards and 26 combined fouls in a match that grew increasingly chippy in the second half. When the two teams met earlier this season, they played to a 1-1 draw in San Luis Obispo, and UC Irvine did everything it could to produce the equalizer again.
The Anteaters best opportunity came in the 80th minute, when Mats Bjurman blasted a shot over goalkeeper Wade Hamilton’s head and off the crossbar. It was one of 17 total shots by UC Irvine, compared to four for the Mustangs. The Anteaters (5-11-4) also held a commanding 14-0 edge in corner kicks.
But each time the visitors got good looks at the goal, Hamilton seemed to come up with a timely save. The two-time defending Big West goalkeeper of the year made six of his seven saves in the second half, earning his seventh shutout of the season.
“Irvine did a good job playing against us, getting in behind us and creating opportunities,” Hamilton said. “ … You try to get the ball up and out, but if you can’t, it ends up being a corner kick. We dealt with a lot in the beginning because they kept getting those balls out wide and whipping them in.”
Sampson said several MLS scouts attended Saturday’s match to watch Hamilton, who is considered one of the top goalkeeper prospects in the country. In 19 matches this season, Hamilton has made 66 saves and holds a 0.94 goals against average.
He and the Cal Poly defense expect to be tested against Cal State Fullerton next week. The Titans (11-7-1) are 7-3 at home this season and have won four of their past six matches. The two teams played once this season, a scoreless draw back Oct. 8.
“This team has always said that having success breeds success,” Sampson said. “It’s important to go to Fullerton and win that game and have a shot at winning a Big West championship.”