Players lay sprawled about the field, their jerseys pulled over their faces to hide the anguished tears of defeat.
After a full regulation period of 90 minutes of outshooting their lesser-ranked opponent and bitter rival, one quick golden goal was enough to end the game and send the opposing bench swarming the field with the triumphant energy of victors.
No. 10 Stanford lost.
Unranked after a disappointingly rocky away stretch to wrap up conference play, Cal women’s soccer pulled off a 1-0 upset against the Cardinal (13-5-1, 6-5 Pac-12) to end the regular season on the highest of notes. After suffering only one loss at home all season, the Bears (11-4-5, 4-4-3) started a five-game road stretch with three conference losses before bouncing back with a win against Washington to send them into their final matchup of the regular season. Wednesday 7 p.m. kickoff at Stanford’s Laird Q. Cagan Stadium was Cal’s last chance to rescue its season.
“For us seniors to win against Stanford—we kind of feel like we are making history,” said senior forward Rachel Mercki. “I’ve never won here in my four years and it is something that we are never going to forget.”
After falling out of the national rankings after last weekend, the Bears entered enemy territory hoping to redeem themselves. Through most of the game, it looked like the Bears would fall short of this goal and be forced to admit the season was a letdown. The Cardinal outshot the Bears by a shocking 16-shot margin, 27-11. Both Lady Luck and senior goalkeeper Emily Kruger salvaged the defense for Cal, as four Stanford shots rattled off the woodwork and several others off the gloves of the keeper. The Bears were lucky to have their star starting goalkeeper back in the net, as Kruger had missed the previous three games due to a concussion.
Despite carrying the defensive burden for most of the game, the Bears salvaged the stalemate, and regulation ended 0-0. Cal then entered its sixth overtime of the season, with the upset still in reach.
With less than two minutes left in the first overtime period, senior midfielder Kaitlyn Fitzpatrick sent a long ball upfield from the right side. Mercik won a footrace with a Cardinal defender as Stanford goalkeeper Jane Campbell shot forward from the other direction. Campbell darted off her line to face Mercik one on one. After the sailing ball took one bounce, Mercik edged out Campbell and narrowly got her head on the cross, sending it over Campbell’s arms and under the crossbar.
“When it went in it almost did not seem like it had actually gone in — it didn’t seem like we had won,” said Mercik. “I made sure that I followed the ball into the net because I was so conscious about getting the ball into the goal.”
Mercik stared at the ball for a split second in slight disbelief as it cruised into the goal, only reacting as it hit the back of the net and she was sure it was indeed the golden goal. Then she turned, arms stretched upward in incredulous joy, and dashed straight toward the oncoming wave of blue and white surging at her from the Cal bench.
“I think once I knew it was in, and the feeling of the bench basically stampeding after me is something that is going to be in my head a long long time,” said Mercik. “We’ve had overtime games and we’ve won games in overtime and those are great experiences, but beating Stanford, our longtime rival it was something we have never experienced before and we were acting like it.”
As Stanford players fell to the ground in shock and sorrow, Mercik fell to the ground, dragged down into an ecstatic dogpile of screaming teammates.
Mercik’s golden goal not only clinched the underdog upset over the Bears’ fiercest rival, but it also pumped life back into the squad’s postseason aspirations. Despite starting the season as a sure bet for this year’s NCAA Tournament, conference struggles threatened to put the Bears on the bubble. The victory over Stanford just might have made the difference.
“Maybe we didn’t get to win the Pac-12, which was one of our goals, but we can still look ahead to getting to the Final Four and getting to where I think our team deserves to be,” said Mercik.
The Bears will find out when the NCAA Tournament Selection Show reveals the 64-team field Monday.
Taylor Brink covers women’s soccer. Contact her at [email protected].