The Mustangs finished second-to-last in the Big West this season. Credit: Kayla Stuart | Mustang News, 2022

Cal Poly Men’s Soccer is coming off one of its worst seasons in program history. 

After finishing the 2021 campaign with a 7-6-4 record (5-1-3 Big West) — good for a second-place regular season finish in the Big West—and hosting a home game in the Conference Tournament, the Mustangs followed it up with one of the few blemishes in the programs recent history — a 2-11-4 record (2-3-4 Big West) and a second-to-last place finish in the conference, finishing ahead of only CSU Bakersfield.

Jadyn Ellis | Mustang News

However, for all of the issues this season, most within the team feel confident about next season, from examining the factors that led to those struggles. A “key factor” was the loss of so many players from last season and the experience of this year’s Mustang squad, according to interim head coach Billy McNicol.

“We graduated, not just some seniors, we graduated with some key players last year,” McNicol said. “And candidly, we never got the replacements correctly. The young boys really just couldn’t handle the intensity of the Big West.”

This was the summary given by McNicol, who took over with just four games left in the season, following the abrupt retirement of Head Coach Steve Sampson due to health issues. 

Captain Nate Colley shared similar thoughts as his coach about the shortcomings of this season’s group.

“I definitely think [Sampson leaving] had an effect,” Colley said. “When you’re trying to build a successful team, usually a big part of that is experience … the quality of your upperclassmen, the guys who have experience playing. A lot of guys were playing their first college soccer games and stuff [like that] definitely made things difficult.”

Colley, however, does have a slightly more positive spin on things than his coach.

“I think many of those [younger] guys stepped up and performed in really big ways, which was great to see,” he said.

The captain expects a lot from himself within the program going forward, especially when motivating his younger teammates.

“Normally, I’d like to be somebody that everyone on my team knows that I’m going to perform every game,” Colley said. “They know that they can look to me and say … that guy is going to carry us. That guy is going to fight for us. He’s going to do everything in his power. He’s not going to let us lose. I think I, unfortunately, did not provide that this season.”

Colley and his coach both believe that that element of leadership was very much missing this season, even more so in the immediate aftermath of Coach Sampson’s departure.

“He told us on Tuesday [about his retirement] and we had to try to rally the boys on Wednesday,” McNicol said. “The first half, hell, even the first 20 minutes of the Sacramento State game were horrible. Players were just emotionally not there. You got to remember when that notice was made there were individuals crying in the locker room. There were kids who packed up and left home to come here for Steve Sampson.”

It showed during the Sacramento State game, perhaps more than any game that season, as the 4-0 drubbing they suffered — at home — truly highlighted what the team had lost via the departure of the anchors of last year’s team: players like goalkeeper Carlos Arce-Hurtado and top goal-scorers Emmanuel Perez and Jacob Glass.

Jadyn Ellis | Mustang News

However, both Colley and McNicol remain incredibly optimistic, considering the circumstances. Both of them were with the team last year—next year will be Colley’s third season with the Green and Gold, and McNicol’s sixth, and so they understand just how much better the team can be. 

Colley said the mindset next season will be having a “clean slate.”

“We get to work right away … and then we carry it into and parlay it into a good fall season. There’s a lot of excitement, a lot of optimism,” Colley said. “We have a good core of guys coming back and I think guys recognize that and are ready to get to work.”

Perhaps the team is already showing that readiness to work, considering they ended the year with what was arguably their best two-game stretch of the season, in the form of a 1-1 draw with rival UCSB, and a 3-2 home win in the season finale against CSU Bakersfield. 

In those two games, the team did indeed show what they were capable in different aspects, as they were more efficient offensively, tighter on defense and quite simply better than they had been all season.

Colley knows his team has their work cut out for them next year, but he also knows that his team has what it takes to succeed.

“We need to embrace what the college soccer game is,” Colley said. “It’s a physical, tough game while also playing the way that we know we can play. We have a lot of talent on our team, so combining the element of using that talent with also being willing to fight, to grind it out … to play for all 90 minutes.”

For now, the fans and players can only look ahead to next season, where the team will be an intriguing one to watch.