The Cal women’s soccer team calls Edwards Stadium its home, but this year, its emotional and spiritual home lied 40 miles southeast of Berkeley.
The Bears (12-6-4, 5-4-2 in the Pac-12) played at Buck Shaw Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., twice – the first in a September regular season match against Santa Clara, followed by a postseason rematch in the first round of the NCAA tournament two months later.
Buck Shaw Stadium was the place where Cal’s season and dreams seemingly snapped in two, like star striker Katie Benz’s leg in the 62nd minute in the first showdown with the Broncos. It was also the place where these dreams temporarily were resurrected, as the Bears upset No. 11 Santa Clara in penalties. The squad was knocked out the next week by Boston College in penalties.
The greatest question for the program this season was what if Benz was able to stay healthy throughout the season. Benz, whose first three years were limited by injuries, was finally enjoying her first healthy season. Would she have continued her incredible one-goal-per-game average? How far could the team have advanced in the NCAA tournament with Benz on the field?
Although these question remain mere speculation, there was no doubt that Benz almost single-handedly catapulted this team into national prominence. After starting the season far from the rankings, Cal was ranked as high as No. 18. The Bears fell out of the rankings soon after after Benz’s injury, struggling to tally enough goals for wins.
Without its offensive lynchpin, Cal had to adjust its game from a high-octane offensive side to a gritty, defensive team, displayed against the Oct. 7 scoreless stalemate against then-No.3 UCLA. The team peaked in the NCAA tournament. Led by senior defender Danielle Brunache, who became the face of the team after Benz’s absence, the Bears conceded just one goal in the squad’s 220 postseason minutes.
“Danielle was the one of the finest players I have ever seen,” defensive partner Emi Lawson said. “It’s going to be a huge loss for this defense.”
Despite tailing off in the second half of the season, this year was the most successful season of the Neil McGuire era at Cal. The fifth-year coach relied heavily on the underclassmen throughout the season, often rendering the team vulnerable against more experienced Pac-12 squads, illustrated by a 3-0 beatdown against No. 23 Oregon State. By the end of the campaign, the young Bears on defense and midfield gelled together, playing a tenacious, possessive style of soccer McGuire preached all season.
“This is a team that’s still growing and learning,” McGuire said. “Don’t forget, against Boston College, we started eight sophomores and freshmen. The future opportunities are great.”
The biggest question going forward would be finding the next great goalscorer like Alex Morgan and Benz. Cal has seen glimpses of potential in two forwards – physical freshman Kory Lamet and crafty sophomore Rachel Mercik. While Mercik shined in the middle of season, notably a two-goal performance against USC, she was inconsistent by the end. Lamet, despite limited action, was a surprise start in the postseason, scoring the lone goal against Santa Clara.
If and when McGuire and his squad can find that answer, this team can spring back to national recognition it once enjoyed under Benz’s watch before that fateful trip to Buck Shaw Stadium.
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