A berth in the Big West Conference tournament’s championship match will be at stake Wednesday night when the Cal Poly men’s soccer team travels south to play Cal State Fullerton.
The Mustangs (11-3-5) defeated UC Irvine 1-0 in a physical opening-round match, securing the first Big West tournament victory in program history. Having finished second to UC Santa Barbara in the North Division of the regular season conference standings, Cal Poly goes on the road to take on the South Division-champion Titans in the tournament semifinals at 7 p.m. at Titan Stadium.
“I really believe Fullerton is going to be a team that is going to try to do the same thing that Irvine did,” first-year Poly head coach Steve Sampson said. “Put pressure on us in the midfield, put pressure on our back line, and if we can play through that pressure, I think we’ll do fine.”
Under second-year head coach George Kuntz, the Titans (11-7-1) captured their first Big West regular-season title in program history. Cal State Fullerton won four of its last six matches to close out the conference schedule and will have the potential advantage of an 11-day break between games.
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Sophomore midfielder Diego Sanchez is one of three underclassmen who led the Titans offensively this season. Sanchez scored six goals and added three assists for a team-leading 17 points. Freshmen Ross McPhie (four goals, three assists) and Brandon West (three goals, four assists) also contributed double-digit point totals.
“Fullerton, they’re a good side, they won down in the south,” senior goalkeeper Wade Hamilton said. “So they’ll be a good squad, but I think we’ll do well.”
Hamilton, the two-time defending Big West goalkeeper of the year, delivered time and again during the Mustangs’ first-round win against UC Irvine. The senior from Murrieta made six of his seven saves in the second half, earning his eighth shutout of the season.
Hamilton’s counterpart Wednesday, Cal State Fullerton’s David Rodriguez Elias, is having a breakout junior season. A lingering hip injury limited Elias to playing in just seven matches as a sophomore, and he quickly made up for lost time this fall.
The 6-foot-2 Elias broke the Titans’ all-time record for single-season shutouts with 11, surpassing the mark of nine set by Mike Ammann back in 1993. He leads the Big West in goals-against average (0.83) and ranks third in save percentage (.771) and goals against (16).
“That team has improved in the second half of the season,” Sampson said. “But going into the game I believe we’re equally as good and maybe even better, but only on the day is that proven.”
Cal State Fullerton won the Big West conference tournament last fall — playing all three of its matches on the road — to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. The Titans were eliminated in the first round by San Diego, falling in double overtime on a golden-goal penalty kick. Twelve seniors off that team graduated, leaving Cal Poly as arguably the more experienced of the two teams heading into Wednesday’s match.
Poly seniors Chase Minter (seven goals, six assists) and Matt Lagrassa (five goals, three assists) accounted for 33 of the team’s 84 total points this season. Junior Justin Dhillon added three goals, including the game-winner against UC Irvine, and senior defender Kip Colvey also scored three times in 19 contests.
The larger playing field at Titan Stadium was something the Mustangs mentioned as a positive factor of being on the road. Cal Poly plays its home games on one of the more narrow fields in the country inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium, and Dhillon said the wider field “really suits our style of play.”
“That tends to be an advantage for us,” Sampson added. “If we can win games on smaller fields here, and when we go to bigger fields, it gives us just a little bit more time and space with which to possess the ball.”