The Cal Poly men’s soccer team (8-7-4, 3-5-2 Big West Conference) saw its 2014 season come to an end Wednesday afternoon at Aggie Soccer Field as it dropped a double-overtime thriller 2-1 to UC Davis.
The loss in the final regular season match knocked the Mustangs out of Big West Tournament contention after they found themselves fighting for first in the Big West North Division just two weeks ago.
“It just tells you how difficult the league is,” interim head coach Phil Ruskin said. “Every single team that played a game today — which is the whole league — was playing for something, and when anyone can beat anyone on any given day, you have to respect every opponent. Every team has a different style, certainly, but every team in this league is extremely good at what they do.”
The Mustangs executed an effective attacking game plan Wednesday, outshooting the Aggies 22-19 to follow up a match two weeks ago in which UC Davis dominated Cal Poly at Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
“I felt good about how we attacked the game,” junior midfielder Matt LaGrassa said. “I thought we were aggressive even early on. We were focused on playing in their half, putting them under pressure, and we did that. There were definitely chances to score and, you know, maybe we weren’t our best in showing that final quality at the end, but I thought we put them under a lot of pressure today and I was happy about that.”
LaGrassa scored a 59th-minute goal off a cross from sophomore defender Sean Dhillon minutes after UC Davis scored the match’s first goal. LaGrassa’s goal would later be described as “uplifting” by Ruskin.
“I thought that they were sinking in a lot on defense and kind of gave us a lot of space to maybe touch and have a hit,” LaGrassa said. “I noticed that in the first half and had a couple chances to pull the trigger and maybe didn’t, and then second half I took a touch and just tried to put a good strike on frame, and it worked out for me.”
Junior goalkeeper Wade Hamilton also logged huge minutes Wednesday, tallying seven saves to add to his Big West-leading total of 96, and kept the Mustangs’ postseason hopes alive until the very end.
“I think he’s just one of those goalkeepers who’s just a professional player in the making,” Ruskin said. “We have a wonderful opportunity to play each and every game with a goalkeeper we trust, someone who’s going to give us opportunities to win games. He just has the right mentality.”
An Aggie goal in the second period of overtime proved to be the final straw for Cal Poly’s season, which was rocked by injuries midway through nonconference play. Prior to the injuries, the Mustangs were on a tear, losing only two of their first 10 games and recording a draw against then-top ranked UCLA on the road.
“You really have to look at our roster and realize that we’ve really only played 13, 14 players (out of a 26-man roster) the whole season,” Ruskin said. “Ultimately, the biggest thing is that because your roster’s short that means guys are playing a lot of minutes, so late-on when we’re having to deal with teams that are substituting and playing fresh players, we don’t have that option.”
Cal Poly will return all of its players next season except for midfielder Steve Palacios, the only senior on the team this year.
Ultimately, while Wednesday’s performance against the Aggies may be remembered as a microcosm of the season — hard-fought, shrouded in adversity and ultimately not enough — the match and the season share something else in common: They both leave a lot more for this young team to be hungry for.
“There wasn’t one moment in the game today where I thought we quit,” Ruskin said. “There wasn’t a moment where we didn’t transition. I think back on this game and I say it’s really a testament to what these kids have put forth all year. They overcame a very difficult situation from preseason with the coach leaving a week before, having their first assistant step up with very little preparation. But at the same time our group banded together and we really put the work in for one another.”
“You look at next season and boy are you excited. How could you not be?”