Cal completes banner season

The Cal field hockey team’s anticlimactic conclusion to its season — last week’s 2-0 loss at the hands of Richmond in the NCAA Play-In game — was anything but representative of one of the Bears’ best seasons in a decade.

It was Cal’s victory over Stanford just a few days earlier that encapsulated the success of the Bear’s 2011 season.

From 2007 to 2010, the Bears had advanced to the final of the NorPac Conference Tournament only to be defeated by Stanford in all four years.

Even with two regular season losses to Stanford this season, the Bears were finally able to exorcise the Stanford demon in the setting where they were once most vulnerable. In the final match of the 2011 NorPac Tournament, goalkeeper Maddie Hand was able to lead the Bears to a 1-0 shutout over their longtime rival.

“We just put two great defensive halves together while in other games our offense steps up for us,” co-captain Erin Magill said after the match.

For Cal (16-4, 4-2 in NorPac), the Stanford victory was a culmination of the sustained success its achieved all season.

Coming off a disappointing 2010 season in which the Bears finished with a 10-9 record, this year’s team surged out of the gate as they faced an early season schedule riddled with ranked opponents.

Right from the opening weekend, the Bears traveled to Louisville, Ky. and defeated No. 16 Louisville (3-1) and No. 13 Michigan State (4-3 OT), an early indication of the season to come.

Cal would finish the season undefeated against out-of-conference ranked opponents, defeating Indiana, Northeastern and Virginia to go along with its opening victories.

Even more impressively, what was supposed to be a relatively young team was able to grind out the closest of games, going 4-0 in overtime matches.

But when it mattered most, the Bears were not able to reproduce the resilience they exuded all season.

Three days after the Stanford victory, in the NCAA Play-In game against Richmond, the Bears came out flat and just never recovered.

The match could be classified as a let-down game, even with the high stakes involved. Other than Stanford, Cal hadn’t lost a match in over a month-and-a-half, defeating a number of teams of higher caliber than the Spiders.

By both subjective (No. 11 in coaches poll) and objective (No. 12 in RPI) measures, the Bears were one of the 16 best teams in the nation. Yet, the format of the automatic-qualifiers and at-large bids in the NCAA Championship eventually left Cal on the outside looking in.

The Bears finished 16-4 on the season, the second most victories in school history and their No. 11 ranking was the program’s highest in a decade.

Next year, Cal will lose four key seniors: forward Megan Shimojima, midfielder Jessica Kreck, defender Erin Magill and goalkeeper Maddie Hand. Co-captains Magill and Hand have been mainstays of the Cal defense over the past three seasons not to mention the two veteran leaders of a young squad.

Even with these losses, next year’s squad will likely come into the the 2012 season with even higher expectations, as the vast majority of this year’s team looks to return for another run. The top four point leaders on the Bear’s eighth ranked offense (in goals-per-game) return, including sophomore forward Andrea Earle and her team-leading 16 goals.

All season long, Cal outlasted its opponents with a high-paced offense that utilized frequent substitutions to take advantage of the team’s deep reserve of forwards. With the roster they will have next season, the Bears should be able to continue this style of play with the same success.