Cal embarks NCAA journey at Malibu

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There may be no place like home, but the Bears will not let that bother them.

Though the No. 23 Cal women’s soccer team was expected to host its first round game of the NCAA tournament, the team instead travels to Malibu, Calif. to face No. 22 Pepperdine on Saturday at Tari Frahm Rokus Field. The Bears (15-5-0) may have preferred to have home-field advantage but being away at Pepperdine (14-6-0) for the 1 p.m. match may not be such a bad scenario for the Bears.

“Obviously we think we did enough to host, but the NCAA felt that that wasn’t the case so we are on the road against Pepperdine,” Cal coach Neil McGuire said.

Cal lost only one road game all season to No. 2 UCLA two weeks ago. The Bears hope to continue this road success by sticking to their style, which consists of making crisp passes through the midfield and finding the forwards on through balls and crosses from the corners. The players’ primary focus is on not letting the environment dictate how they handle the game.

“Playing our game and possessing the ball is our main priority,” midfielder Betsy Hassett said. “As long as we have the ball we can move it around and control the game.”

Despite the team’s confidence heading to Malibu, the Bears and the Waves look to be evenly matched. The two teams sit right next to each other in national rankings, and both teams finished third in their respective conferences.

However, the Pac-12 is much more competitive than the West Coast Conference. It boasts the top two teams in the nation and tallies six postseason berths, in contrast to the WCC’s four.

“(Pepperdine is) a very talented team… so this is going to be a tough test for us but one we are excited to do,” said McGuire.

The Bears enter the match with a key weapon in freshman standout Ifeoma Onumonu. Onumonu led Cal in goals scored in the regular season and was awarded the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year.

With Onumonu leading the offensive line, the Bears head into Saturday focused on controlling the game with their own style of play.

“Of course, there are times you want to think about how you can exploit the other team,”said senior forward Lauren Battung.  “We perform at our best when we prepare ourselves rather than focus on who we are playing.”

The Bears carry a renewed self-confidence. Cal ended the regular season with a strong game against No. 1 Stanford. Though the Cardinal eked out a 1-0 victory, the Bears dominated the game, proving they have what it takes to compete with the best team in the country.

“We had a good game against Stanford last week, and we feel like we can beat any team,” said Hassett. “We feel confident we can win this weekend.”

The tournament is a beast of its own, full of potential surprises and upsets. The Bears hope to move past the Waves and gain footing in the greater battle ahead.

“Playoffs are another part of your season,” said Battung. “It is like a new start.”

Taylor Brink covers women’s soccer. Contact her at [email protected]