Jefferson P. Nolan
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Last year, it was George Malki who stole the spotlight in Alex G. Spanos Stadium. Hoisted up on the shoulders of his teammates and fellow students, the then-junior midfielder was draped in a Cal Poly flag. He couldn’t stop smiling.
But in Friday night’s 1-1 draw against UC Santa Barbara, Malki found himself throwing glances to the crowd, hoping that the mass of fans wouldn’t be bold enough to rush the field.
“We wanted the fans to rush the field like they always do, but I’m really glad they didn’t,” Malki said. “That wouldn’t have been right.”
In what many regard as the top rivalry in college soccer, the crowd of 11,075 leaned against the fences, waiting for any excuse to pounce on the field.
The rowdy crowd blew their vuvuzelas and threw their tortillas. Even Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong sported green and gold face paint among the fans.
But unlike last year’s Blue-Green heroics, the crowd left Spanos Stadium unsatisfied. It wasn’t a loss, but it certainly wasn’t a win.
What proved to be yet another physically taxing match against the Gauchos, Cal Poly looked to have the momentum when, in the eighth minute, freshman winger Justin Dhillon hammered a header past the Gauchos’ goalkeeper.
“It was unbelievable … I can’t even describe it,” Dhillon said. “Adrenaline flowing everywhere. I can’t put it into words what it felt like to score in front of this amazing crowd in this stadium.”
And what head coach Paul Holocher anticipated to be a match of UC Santa Barbara’s size versus Cal Poly’s ability to pass and control the ball proved to be a game of cat and mouse — each team receiving opportunities to score and few balls crossing the goal line.
“They’ve got some guys that can hold the ball really well,” Holocher said. “Every head-ball was a war. We don’t have the same size as Santa Barbara. That’s not our style. I told our guys at halftime that we’ve got to put the ball down and play and try and move the ball better in passing.”
Seconds before halftime, UC Santa Barbara’s Achille Campion snuck a shot passed sophomore goalkeeper Wade Hamilton to equalize the score.
“All these Santa Barbara games come down to momentum,” Malki said. “You have it at one point and then they take it away. It’s a back and forth game. I think we had some chances. We had some early good looks. If we finish those, it’s a different game.”
The second half was again epitomized by momentum shifts as the ball moved back and forth, up and down the field. All without a score.
In the second half of play, freshman Ari Lassiter attempted a shot that was blocked by the Gauchos’ freshman goalkeeper, Josh McNeely.
Lassiter and senior forward Mackenzie Pridham had multiple opportunities to tally a go-ahead goal for the Mustangs, but after Dhillon’s goal, nothing got past the native from Calabasas, Calif.
“The keeper for Santa Barbara I think had one of the games of his life,” Pridham said. “He had three or four big-time saves on me. Those are ones I can usually slip away on goalies. He came up big. Maybe I could have been a bit better, but his saves were on point tonight. Props to him for bringing it … It makes the rivalry that much more intense.”
In a nail-biting, sudden-death overtime goal attempt, Pridham hammered a ball at the Gauchos’ goal that barely glazed McNeely’s gloved fingertips.
A gasp of anticipation filled the stadium. So close, yet so far.
After playing three games in six days — two of which lasted 110 minutes — a limping Pridham made it apparent that the Mustangs left it all out on the field. And as far as Holocher is concerned, the end result was to be expected.
“You can’t always play as well as you want to play,” Holocher said. “Credit to both teams. We both competed hard; I think that a tie was a fair result.”
Cal Poly will have a week to recuperate and prepare for Saturday’s game as the Mustangs will take on Sacramento State in the final regular season home game of the season.