Defender Kip Colvey will run the flanks as the men's soccer team hosts No. 3 UC Irvine on Thursday. Goalkeeper Alyssa Giannetti is already No. 2 on the Cal Poly all-time saves list and will mind the net when women's soccer travels to Long Beach State on Friday. | Ian Billings and Christa Lam/ Mustang News

Nick Larson
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Nonconference play is a time to travel the country, tinker with lineups and find out if the new freshmen can actually compete at the college level. For the Cal Poly men’s and women’s soccer teams, that time is over.

Big West Conference play begins in the next few days for both sides. The men’s team faces No. 3 UC Irvine on Thursday, Oct. 2, in Alex G. Spanos Stadium. The women open with a similarly daunting task, traveling south to face the Big West’s highest-ranked team, Long Beach State.

The nonconference matches were relatively successful for the men’s soccer team. Despite the disappearance of their head coach of eight seasons, the Mustangs have worked their way to a 5-2-2 record under former assistant turned interim head coach Phil Ruskin.

Their schedule was tough, including visits to North Carolina State and then-No. 1 UCLA. However, the Mustangs came away with a 3-1 victory against the Wolfpack, which began a six-game unbeaten run, and escaped with a shutout and a tie against the Bruins.

Cal Poly, the seventh-highest scoring team in Division I last season, has been earning results, but without the same success as last year. The Mustangs are averaging just 1.78 goals per game this year, but are only giving up an average of 1.00 per game. Junior goalkeeper Wade Hamilton has been a rock in goal, shutting out four opponents in nine matches.

“Obviously, soccer is a game where scoring is very difficult,” Ruskin said. “It’s so important for our guys to understand that we’re still creating great chances, we just need to finish.”

Ruskin still has high expectations for the Mustangs.

“The first expectation, obviously, is that we are in the conference tournament at the end of the year,” Ruskin said. “Every point is crucial. We want to make sure to take care of our games at home.”

UC Irvine is 8-0-1 this season, notching 21 goals in nine games. The Anteaters’ No. 3 ranking makes them the highest-ranked opponent to ever visit Spanos for a men’s soccer match. Despite their currently undefeated record, Ruskin feels confident in the Mustangs’ chances against them.

“They have a couple areas we intend to exploit,” Ruskin added. “Our guys have a good scout on them. It’s going to come down to how they execute.”

The women’s soccer team is just 5-6-0 in nonconference play, but head coach Alex Crozier isn’t worried about the Big West preseason favorites.

“I think our nonconference schedule was more difficult than last year’s,” Crozier said.

The Mustangs have visited three of the top 12 teams in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) poll — No. 3 Stanford, No. 11 Pepperdine and No. 12 California — and lost all three by a combined total of only four goals.

“We played them, all three, real close,” Crozier added. “A couple of them we felt like we should have won. We didn’t quite get the results we want, but we are getting better. I feel like we are moving in the right direction.”

In 2013, the Mustangs went 4-6 in nonconference play but still won the Big West with a 7-1 record in conference.

Junior forward Elise Krieghoff, the nation’s leading scorer last year based on goals per game, has regained the form she had last year. Krieghoff has found the net seven times in her past four matches, and up to 10 goals on the season. She is only four goals away from first place on the Cal Poly all-time goals list.

On the opposite end of the field, the Mustangs are just as solid. Junior goalkeeper Alyssa Giannetti is limiting her opponents to just 1.45 goals per game and has recently moved to No. 2 on the Cal Poly all-time saves list.

“We played some top teams,” Giannetti said. “You just have to take away things that you did well in those games. You can’t dwell on the results.”

Giannetti dominated Big West play last year, giving up an average of just 1 goal per game in conference play. Her experience in the back has been invaluable, as the Mustangs lost six starters from last year’s squad.

“You need to have your stuff down before going into conference,” Giannetti added. “We have one of the toughest soccer conferences, so it’ll be a tough one.”

The Mustangs’ match at Long Beach State kicks off at 6 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 3.

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