When midfielder Kaitlyn Fitzpatrick heard that the Cal women’s soccer team was scheduled to play No. 11 Santa Clara in the first round of the NCAA tournament, her thoughts were focused on one thing: revenge.
The Bears (12-6-2, 5-4-2 in the Pac-12) suffered a crushing 3-0 loss to the Broncos on Sept. 25, but that was not the biggest loss of the night. Star striker Katie Benz, who was leading the team with 10 goals, broke her leg at Buck Shaw Stadium, cutting the team captain’s storybook season short.
Now against Santa Clara (13-2-5) this Saturday at 2 p.m, Cal will look to kill two birds with one stone by avenging their embarrassing September loss and dedicating the victory to Benz.
“A lot of the players want to beat them for Benz,” Fitzpatrick said. “We really want to dedicate the victory to her.”
Since the loss of Benz, the Bears have not been the same. Largely hindered by their inability to manufacture goals, Cal has fallen out of the top 25 and struggled to play at par with the top half of the Pac-12.
Meanwhile, Santa Clara has enjoyed great success since the Cal match. The Broncos have won eight of the 10 since, culminating in a share of the West Coast Conference title.
Santa Clara’s formula for success this season has been its high-energy, scrappy play, a style that has been called dirty by some players on Cal’s team. When on offense, the Broncos like to crowd nearby the penalty box to create various attacking options. Utilizing their fast pace and endless stamina to put the opposing defense in uncomfortable situations, they have amassed a conference-high 40 goals.
“When we are near the goal, we tend to slow down,” Fitzpatrick said. “They are the opposite of us (on offense). They can be creative around the goal instead of waiting for a through ball to open the defense.”
In the middle of the offense is midfielder Julie Johnston, a sophomore who led the team with nine goals and four assists. As the creator and the scorer, Johnston dazzled in the last outing against Cal, scoring a pair of goals.
“Johnston is the player we need to look out for,” Fitzpatrick said. “She can easily score goals outside the penalty box.”
Like Santa Clara, the Bears possess a scoring midfielder in Fitzpatrick, who has been one of the few bright spots for Cal since Benz’s injury. Her highlight was a hat trick against Oregon two weeks ago. If the Bears want a chance at pulling off the upset, Fitzpatrick will need to outplay Johnston in the center of the pitch.
Luckily for Fitzpatrick and the players, Cal, unlike in the past several tournaments, has time to prepare for the Broncos.
For four of the past five years, the Bears have traveled to Florida and struggled to adjust to the different climate and time zone. With Santa Clara only an hour away, Cal can maintain its regular practice schedule.