As regular-season Big West soccer play comes to a close, neither UC Davis team is ready to hang up its cleats.
Both the Aggie men and women find themselves with legitimate shots to qualify for the NCAA playoffs. Their fates will be determined in the conference postseason tournaments, which feature the top four teams competing in a single-elimination format for a berth in the NCAAs.
The UCD women, who wrapped up Big West play with back-to-back losses, including a disappointing 4-1 defeat at Cal State Fullerton in Sunday’s finale, are seeded fourth in the conference tournament.
The Aggies (11-6-1 overall, 4-3-1 BWC) will travel south to face top-seeded UC Irvine at 7 p.m. Thursday. No. 3 Cal State Northridge plays at No. 2 Long Beach State at 2 p.m. Thursday in the other conference semifinal.
“This week was really difficult with challenges,” said UCD women’s head coach Maryclaire Robinson. “Life got in the way. Some people were sick; others had midterms. … It really humbled us a bit. We were on a five-game winning streak.
“Now is an opportunity for us to get healthy, to get a little more well-rested,” she continued. “(With the return of Aisha Lott from injury) this allows us the opportunity to be the team that we were early on. I’m less invested in what Irvine will bring and more invested in us fine-tuning our needs.”
Senior captains Lott, Rachel Kahn, Anna Quigley and Elise Winbrock, a Davis High graduate, have helped set the tone for the Aggies, who were picked to finish seventh in the eight-team conference before the season. Lisa Kemp and Allison Kelly also have provided solid leadership for UCD.
“We were really disappointed after the 2009 season,” Robinson said. “That’s when we took these steps toward change. Last year, we were right there. From last year to this year, it’s a collection of small evolutions. Now, we’re realizing these goals.”
While success in Big West play is always the most important thing, the Aggies hoped setting and fulfilling a few early goals — such as beating University of Pacific, UNLV and Sacramento State — would get them on the right track. UCD held off Sac State, 1-0 on Aug. 28; shut out UNLV, 2-0 on Sept. 11; and topped Pacific, 3-2 in overtime on Oct. 13.
“It’s been very powerful to watch,” Robinson said. “Winning begets winning.”
Meanwhile, the Aggie men’s squad is right where head coach Dwayne Shaffer wanted them to be — in position to participate in the Big West tournament and possibly earn the NCAA berth.
“We’re on course to achieve our goal,” Shaffer said. “We need to get a win Wednesday (against Cal State Fullerton at 3 p.m.).”
Heading into Wednesday, UCD (7-7-2, 5-3-0) sits in second place with 15 points, just one point behind UC Irvine (13-5-1, 5-3-1). The Aggies have two regular-season games remaining: Wednesday’s Senior Appreciation game against Fullerton (1-5-2) and a Saturday contest at the Big West’s third-place squad, UC Riverside (4-3-2).
The conference tournament opens Nov. 9 with the No. 1 and 2 seeds playing host to the No. 4 and 3 seeds, respectively.
“I think we’ve surprised a lot of teams, not only in the Big West,” Shaffer said. “We’ve played an extremely tough schedule.”
UCD posted early wins over UCLA (2-1 in OT) and Oregon State (1-0, double overtime) in two of the nine overtime games the Aggies have played already this fall. The tough schedule and hard-fought matches have toughened up the young UCD squad.
The Aggies have two true freshmen starting on defense: Brian Ford of Newport Beach, who has been in the lineup for every game this season, and Ramon Martin Del Campo of Chula Vista, who has started nearly every conference match. On the offensive side, freshman Matt Wiesenfarth, a Jesuit graduate, leads the team in scoring.
“(As a team), we are meeting our expectations,” Shaffer said. “And our freshmen are definitely exceeding them. True freshmen don’t usually start right away. Any time you get a freshman that scores goals, that’s a good sign.”
The youthful Aggies aren’t totally devoid of experienced players. Lance Patterson, a senior from Aurora, Colo., who spent the past two seasons playing forward, is back at his original position, center defender, in 2011 and thriving. Junior Mustafa Chopan provides additional experience at center midfielder as well as smarts — the neurobiology, physiology and behavior major carries a 4.0 GPA.
UCD goalie Omar Zeenni, a sophomore from Arcadia, saw a lot of playing time last year as a true freshman and it’s paying off. The two-time Big West Defensive Player of the Week has 53 saves this season.
“The experience has helped by keeping us calm,” Shaffer said. “There is also the retention factor. All the things they’ve been taught, all the things they’ve learned, it’s like second nature to them.”
Providing additional consistency to the Aggie lineup are midfielders Alex Aguiar, Kevin Schulte and Alex Henry, and forward John Joslin.
Notes: Schulte was selected to the Soccer America Men’s Team of the Week for Oct. 17-23, joining 11 Division I players from across the country. It’s the sophomore from Riverside’s second honor from a national publication, as Schulte also was chosen as CollegeSoccer360.com’s Primetime Player of the Week. … In Sunday’s loss to Fullerton, the UCD women got their lone goal from freshman Reagan Dolan. Despite the loss, the Aggies have 11 wins this season, their most since 2002.
— Reach Kim Orendor at [email protected]