The careers of four decorated Cal Poly seniors came to an end Thursday night — but the men’s soccer team took an important step forward as a program.
Playing in its first NCAA Tournament match in seven years, Cal Poly kept pace with four-time national champion UCLA for the better part of 60 minutes before falling 2-0 in the tournament’s opening round at Drake Stadium.
The Mustangs limited the second-highest scoring team in the country to three shots in the first half, providing hope of upsetting last year’s national runner-up on its own field.
But the Bruins continued to push the tempo. UCLA scored in the 59th minute off a corner kick and went ahead 2-0 when the Mustangs scored an own-goal 18 minutes later.
“I never would have thought that their two goals would have come that way,” first-year head coach Steve Sampson said. “I think the tactical plan that we had against them for most of the game, they did a great job of implementing.”
UCLA (11-8-1) will play No. 11-seeded Seattle University in the second round Sunday. The Redhawks won the Western Athletic Conference regular season title and secured the first top-16 seed in program history following their 17-win campaign.
Cal Poly (11-5-5) and it’s talented senior class of goalkeeper Wade Hamilton, defender Kip Colvey and midfielders Chase Minter and Matt Lagrassa completed one of the school’s best seasons in recent memory.
Having undergone a coaching change during their careers, the Mustang seniors helped guide the program to a second-place finish in the Big West Conference and set the standard for some talented underclassmen moving forward.
“This program has been growing every year and we’re becoming something that is a recognized name and this is just the first step in the tenure of Steve Sampson,” said Minter, the two-time Big West midfielder of the year. “I know that us as seniors, we wanted to really give a season that this program could go on and continue to grow and become the program that we all wanted it to be.”
UCLA came out as the more aggressive team in the second half, eventually breaking the scoreless tie in the 59th minute. Freshman Jackson Yueill lofted a corner kick into the box and senior Jordan Vale finished the play with a header to the far post.
The Bruins, playing in their 33rd consecutive NCAA Tournament and 43rd overall, continued to apply pressure on the Cal Poly defense in transition, taking a 2-0 lead when the Mustangs knocked in an own-goal in the 77th minute.
“It happens,” Sampson said, “but it sort of took the winds out of our sails.”
UCLA had been known a second-half team all season, and the Bruins showed as much Thursday night. Of the 45 goals UCLA scored during the regular season — tied for the second-most in the country — 32 came in the second half or overtime.
“We knew they were going to raise their intensity,” Lagrassa said. “That’s what good teams do.”
The Bruins registered 13 shots —10 of those coming in the second half — and held a 6-3 edge in corner kicks. However, Cal Poly kept three of the most dynamic offensive players in the country off the stat sheet with Jose Hernandez, Seyi Adekoya and Abu Danladi each being held in check.
When the two teams played a nonconference match in mid-September, UCLA overcame a 1-0 halftime deficit with a four-goal surge in the second half. It was the most lopsided loss of the Mustangs’ season and perhaps a turning point for the program.
“I can’t be prouder of my guys, who have fought all season long and made a game of it,” Sampson said. “What a different game tonight than the first time we played UCLA.
“The measure of improvement of this team has been remarkable.”
Cal Poly had one key scoring opportunity in the first half but was unable to convert. Minter hammered a free kick from 25 yards out, forcing UCLA goalkeeper Juan Cervantes to make a save to his left.
The ball ricocheted back into the box and freshman George Grote put another shot on frame, but Cervantes was there to make the save again. The Mustangs would get one more clean look at the goal in the first half when Lagrassa lifted a shot just over the crossbar in the 44th minute.
“We’re certainly going to miss all four of the seniors,” Sampson said, “but I think the future is very bright for Cal Poly soccer.”