Rafael Salinas & Allison Edmonds
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Redshirt freshman forward Kaba Alkebulan found himself on the receiving end of two great pieces of service by his teammates Sunday afternoon in the sweltering heat at Alex G. Spanos Stadium. His goals in the 55th and 91st minutes gave the Mustangs (6-2-3, 1-0-1) a 2-1 Big West Conference victory over Cal State Northridge (4-6-1, 0-2-0).
“Ugh, we needed that one,” head coach Phil Ruskin said prior to any questions being asked.
The victory was Cal Poly’s first in its last three matches, after the Mustangs drew their last two against Drake and No. 3 UC Irvine.
The game was played in the midst of a heat wave, and it took its toll on all the players.
“We never make many substitutions, but these guys have done a good job managing their bodies and making sure they were prepared for this,” Ruskin said.
The play was understandably a bit slower, but the first half saw Cal Poly controlling possession and slightly stretching the defense at times. However, it was the Matadors that had the majority of opportunities, testing junior goalkeeper Wade Hamilton, who proved more than up to the challenge.
On a shot from inside a crowded 18-yard box, Hamilton’s deflection found another Cal State Northridge forward who fired again and, once again, Hamilton parried the shot — this time, far enough away from danger.
The Mustangs were outshot in the first half 10 to four, but the play seemed more in favor of the Mustangs than shots show. On several occasions, the right and left backs pushed the play forward, clearly representing the Mustangs’ style of attack.
“Our outside backs did a good job today pushing up play controlling the possession,” Ruskin said. “That’s all you can ask for.”
On one occasion, a through ball was nearly played from the right wing onto the feet of freshman midfielder Joseph Bolous, but the keeper beat him to it and was nearly spiked for his troubles.
The play significantly opened up for both sides in the second half.
Alkebulan’s first goal came on a beautiful run of play up the right wing, capped by a through ball by sophomore forward John Chronopoulos. Alkebulan drew the keeper out, enabling him to take a strong touch and eek it into the goal from a very tough angle.
“I have to credit John for his service,” Alkebulan said. “Without him, that goal wouldn’t have been possible.”
The goal came early in the second half and left significant time for the Matadors to find an equalizer. Though Hamilton’s play has been top-notch this season, a shot of top quality beat him in the 87th minute. Forward Marino Peixoto found himself open after a deflection and sent a dipping shot over the outstretched arm of the 6-foot-3 Hamilton.
In the heat, with the end of the game so near, it was a difficult pill to swallow. Disaster nearly struck the Mustangs when another shot rolled past Hamilton in the last two minutes, but it clanked off the post.
The Mustangs didn’t have to see much overtime, catching the Matadors’ defense badly out of position on a turnover that occurred near midfield.
Junior midfielder Matt LaGrassa was sent charging down the right side of the field and was able to find Alkebulan in the center with an excellent lead pass that left him one on one with the keeper. Alkebulan’s shot was tipped by the keeper, but still managed to find the net, sealing the win for the Mustangs.
“Again, I have to credit my teammates,” Alkebulan said. “Without LaGrassa, that goal wouldn’t have been as wide open.”
Some players immediately collapsed to the turf in jovial fashion following the goal. It was clear the heat had left them sapped but victorious.
The Mustangs will travel to UC Riverside (2-7-1, 1-1-0) on Thursday in their third Big West match.