UC Davis men’s soccer head coach Dwayne Shaffer was well aware of the struggles that were ahead for his squad on its 2012 schedule, which included six matches against teams that began the season in the top 25.
“My motto has always been, ‘We’ll play anybody, anywhere, any day,’ ” he said at the season’s onset.
Thankfully, Shaffer’s Aggies were more than willing to rise to the challenge. UCD battled through unfamiliar nonconference competition and one of the nation’s toughest leagues to finish with a record of 10-7-4 overall and 8-4 in the Big West Conference. It was a nice improvement on last year’s records of 7-8-4 overall and 5-4-2 in Big West play.
In addition, the Aggies achieved a program first by reaching — and hosting — the championship game of the Big West Conference Tournament.
UCD bested Cal State Fullerton, 2-0, in the semifinals, the same round the Aggies were bounced from, 2-1, by UC Barbara in 2011. Needing one more win to be crowned the 2012 Big West champions, the locals were unable to get past Cal State Northridge, falling 1-0 on Saturday at Aggie Soccer Field.
“We were just as good as them, but we just couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net,” said Shaffer, who concludes his 16th year at the helm. “Their goalkeeper made three or four incredible saves. There’s not much we can do about that.”
The first step on the long road to the Big West finals was a nonconference bout with UNLV on Aug. 24, which ended up being the first season-opening victory for UCD in four years. The Aggies went on to tie subsequent road games against CSU Bakersfield, Air Force, Denver and San Francisco.
After riding the high of a five-game unbeaten streak, UCD hit a lull by dropping the next five matches. However, the Aggies rallied back from the midseason slump to defeat then-No. 23 Tulsa on Sept. 14 at the SMU Classic.
The 2012 Big West slate began the same way it would end as UCD opened conference play with a loss at Northridge before embarking on a four-game winning streak. The season success continued with a Nov. 3 victory over Sacramento State to capture the Big West North title.
“The Big West is one of the top ranked conferences in the nation,” Shaffer said. “To be Northern Division champions, and to make the conference final, is a great accomplishment for the program. I’m proud of my players for putting in a tremendous amount of effort to get us there.”
Had the Aggies emerged victorious from the Big West Conference Tournament, they would have earned automatic qualification into the NCAA Tournament, which begins Thursday.
Instead, the local men had to nervously wait for the university’s name to be called during the NCAA’s bracket selection Monday. The UCD squad gathered together to watch the event via a live video stream, but the Aggies found themselves absent from the list of 48 teams invited to the prestigious competition.
According to Shaffer, a few last-minute upsets ultimately kept his guys from getting a tournament bid.
“We were disappointed,” he confessed. “It felt like we were deserving to be in the tournament, and we played well enough. We did everything we were supposed to do to make the tournament.
“Hopefully, we can return next year and win the conference tournament and make the NCAA tournament.”
But not all of the 2012 UCD squad will be around to see that goal come to fruition. A key starter, senior Mustafa Chopan, is one anchor who will be missed next season
“He will be desperately missed,” Shaffer said. “Not only for his playing, but for his leadership abilities.”
The graduation of Aggie senior defender Ethan Shawlee will leave just as big a hole to fill. Another veteran, forward Josh Joslin, also leaves the UCD roster.
On the other hand, UCD returns a bunch of talented players, who should re-enter the fray in 2013 stronger than ever. Juniors Alex Aguire, Kevin Schulte and Pat Reese, along with sophomore Matt Sheldon all will be back after scoring three goals apiece this fall. Freshman Ryan Gross, a Davis High graduate, started every game of 2012, posting two goals and three assists.
Shaffer said these players, all of whom had exceptional seasons, will greatly benefit from the experience of an unquestionably difficult 2012 campaign.
“We have made the Big West Conference Tournament the past two years,” he added. “They’ve learned a lot about what it takes to get there. I feel like these young men are the right fit for the program.”
— Reach Brett Johnson at [email protected] or 530-747-8052.