No. 3 seed Cal Poly men’s soccer fell by a score of 1-0 and were eliminated by No. 6 seed UC Riverside in the opening round of the Big West Tournament on Wednesday, Nov. 3 inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of these guys who were really unfortunate because I think they deserve better,” head coach Steve Sampson said. “When the time comes, you have to execute and they were just slightly off tonight.”
The Mustangs (7-6-4, 5-1-3 Big West) have gotten past the quarterfinals just once in the program’s history and have hosted just three Big West Conference matchups in the past 12 years.
The defeat marked the last game as a Mustang for Sampson, who will be retiring, and the seniors on the roster.
“I absolutely love Cal Poly, I love the people here and the fans have been phenomenal,” Sampson said. “The student body has been really supportive and it’s been seven of the best years of my life.”
Senior defender Josh Graham, one of the team captains, is one of those seniors who played in their final game as a Mustang.
“I just want to take time to thank first of all God, my teammates, they’re my brothers,” Graham said. “We’ve been through ups and downs, but we’ve always stayed positive with each other and it really is like a family, so I’m going to miss them the most.”
UC Riverside (9-7-2, 4-4-2 Big West) played a great defensive game and didn’t let Cal Poly land a single shot on target throughout the entire match.
The first threat of the night came in the 7th minute when senior forward Emmanuel Perez nearly opened the scoring with a headered ball that bounced just outside of the right post.
Within the first 27 minutes, junior goalkeeper Carlos Arce-Hurtado was put to the test twice by the Highlander attack, but he pulled off a pair of saves to keep the game scoreless.
A Mustang defensive error in the 42nd minute almost led to a goal as Riverside came 1-on-1 with Arce-Hurtado. However, the goalkeeper came through again with a save as the ball rebounded off his defender and was immediately cleared by Graham.
A minute later, freshman defender Ori Bitton was fouled inside the 18-yard box, forcing a penalty kick in favor of the Mustangs. Senior defender Andrew Forth stepped up for the kick, but placed it wide of the bottom left post, sending both sides into halftime scoreless.
Cal Poly was unable to place a shot on goal in the first 45 minutes, whereas UC Riverside recorded three shots on target. The Highlanders also held onto the ball for 58% of the time compared to the Mustangs’ 42%.
Eight minutes into the second half, Cal Poly had the first threat as senior midfielder Neil Boyal volleyed a loose ball inside the penalty box, but it was sent just off target.
Immediately after, Cal Poly fouled a Highlander inside the box to set up the second penalty kick of the night. Arce-Hurtado saved the initial shot in the bottom right corner but Leopoldo Hernandez slotted in the follow-through shot to give Riverside the 1-0 lead.
“You can’t afford to miss penalty kicks and give up penalty kicks,” Sampson said. “I thought all season long that these guys fought hard and they fought hard tonight against a good opponent, so there’s so much positive to take away from this season.”
Cal Poly tried to get back in the game in the 62nd minute when a clear chance on goal came to Forth, but he headed the ball just over the crossbar.
Throughout the final 15 minutes of the match, the Mustangs had multiple attacking chances, but couldn’t cause any danger or net a goal.
“We’ve been grinding all the way through winter and the past fall you know, it’s been a long journey,” Graham said. “And it’s a shame we couldn’t really top it off with a ring.”
UC Riverside will continue in the Big West Conference Tournament and will travel to UC Irvine for a semifinal matchup on Saturday, Nov. 6. Meanwhile, Cal Poly’s season is over.
“I’m really proud of the way that I’ve left the program both on the field and off the field and I think it’s in good shape for someone new to come in and build upon it,” Sampson said.