When star striker Katie Benz had her career season cut short by a leg injury, the Cal women’s soccer team turned to sophomore forward Rachel Mercik to take the reins of the offense.
Mercik knows all too well what Benz is currently going through – Mercik broke a bone in her left foot last season that kept her off the field for nearly eight months.
Now as the starting forward for the Bears, Mercik scored two of the last three goals, and she credits the tutelage of the injured forward for her recent success.
“I have to give my dues to my seniors like Benz who taught me a lot of what I do on the field,” Mercik said. “A big motivation for me and the team is Benz; she doesn’t speak much but she’s always at practice and at the matches as a part of the team.”
After a huge weekend with a scoreless draw against No. 6 UCLA and a 2-0 win against USC, Mercik and the Bears (9-3-2, 2-1-2 ) are heading into Tucson, Ariz., for a Friday 7 p.m. tilt against Arizona at Mulcahy Stadium.
As the record indicates, the Wildcats (1-10-2, 1-3-1) have struggled mightily. With an ineffective offense that scored a paltry six goals the entire season, Arizona actually regressed from its subpar 5-13-2 season last year.
Of its five wins last year, one came against Cal. Thanks to sophomore midfielder Shannon Heinzler’s overtime goal, the Wildcats pulled off a huge upset win over the Bears, recording their first win against Cal in program history.
“The Arizona match proves that on any given night, any Pac-12 team can beat us,” Cal coach Neil McGuire said. “We go into every conference match thinking that our opponents are better than us and that we are the underdogs.”
As Arizona took a step backwards this season, the Bears have made strides in the right direction. With six matches to go on the schedule, Cal is already one win short of tying last year’s win tally, largely in part to Benz piling 10 goals in the first 10 matches.
But in the current Benz-less era, the Bears’ offense needed to find other alternatives to score goals, and it seems they have found the solutions last weekend. As players like Kaitlyn Fitzpatrick and Lauren Battung grow comfortable into their larger responsibilities, it eased Mercik’s transition into the starting 11.
“Fitz and I have been connecting a lot lately at matches,” Mercik said. “We heard during practice that Arizona plays a high defensive line, and that is what Lauren and I look for. We like to run past the defenders using our speed and tricks.”
As the new offensive threat, Mercik reenergized the Cal offense following its five-game winless streak after Benz’s injury. With the Bears heading into Tucson, they would look toward Mercik to keep the upbeat spirit under the stadium lights.
“Playing under the lights energizes all players,” McGuire said. “There is an excitement on the field about playing under the Friday night lights.”