It was the 71st minute, and the pressure of the situation was suffocating as the Bears were desperately looking for a goal. The Cal men’s soccer team, the No. 15 seed, was in the second-round NCAA matchup against Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (8-9-4, 4-1-1 MVC).
But that’s when defender Nick Lima played a cross in from the right wing that senior forward Stefano Bonomo directed on net with a header. Given the pace of the shot, Cougar keeper Kyle Dal Santo could not handle it, leaving a juicy rebound.
In flew senior defender Bobby Sekine to put the goal away and bring the Edwards Stadium crowd to its feet. Sekine was mobbed by his teammates, scoring only his second goal of the year but easily the most important.
“He’s meant a lot to the team all season long, whether he was a starter or coming off the bench,” said coach Kevin Grimes. “We felt starting Sekine was the right thing to do today. In hindsight, it was.”
Suddenly, Cal was up 1-0 late in the contest. Although there were some nerve-wracking moments in the final 19 minutes, the Bears (11-6-1, 4-5-1 Pac-12) would hold on to defeat the Cougars by the same score and advance to the third round in the NCAA tournament.
The Bears had some chances early, but nothing stuck. Within seven minutes of the opening whistle, the Bears appeared to have taken a 1-0 advantage, thanks to Sekine. But a glimpse at the offside flag up across the field spoiled the jubilation of the crowd. In the 36th minute, Cal again came within inches of breaking the deadlock. A beautifully placed ball off the left foot of senior midfielder Connor Hallisey caused some confusion in the box. A scramble ensued, but the Bears would leave empty handed.
The teams entered halftime knotted up at 0-0. Because neither team wanted to be the one to make the mistake that would send them home, both squads committed to a conservative approach in the first frame, only tallying seven shots on goal combined.
“It comes with being in the tournament,” said Cal keeper Alex Mangels. “Everybody has some nerves. The game was played in the middle of the field a lot because nobody wanted to give up goals.”
The second half started off slowly, with neither team registering a shot in the first 10 minutes. But in the 63rd minute, Cal almost yielded the first goal of the game when Cougar defender Matt Polster decided to test Mangels with a shot from distance. The ball soared in and ricocheted of the woodwork but would stay out.
“That made my heart drop a little bit,” said defender Trevor Haberkorn. “It was crazy. … The post saved us.”
The Bears, seeing their NCAA lives flash before their eyes, woke up after the close chance. They played with more energy and tightened up defensively, allowing less space for free dribbling in their half.
And then Sekine finally broke the scoreless tie.
After the goal, the Bears began to shell up, electing to clear balls instead of hold possession. Bonomo dropped into the midfield to use his prowess in the air to stop SIUE’s long balls, and the remaining forwards did what they could to waste time.
Finally, the whistle blew, and Cal survived. With the victory, the Bears advance to the third round of the tournament.
Austin Crochetiere covers men’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected].