Late strike by Santa Clara ends Cal women’s soccer postseason run

Alex Turney/Staff

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One and done. After just a single game, the Cal women’s soccer team’s 10th consecutive postseason run ended before it could really turn into a run at all.

Sofia Huerta’s 70th-minute goal handed No. 9 Santa Clara (15-4-1, 8-1-0 in the WCC) a 2-1 win over Cal (11-5-5, 4-4-3 in the Pac-12) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and dashed the Bears’ hopes of an extended postseason run. Huerta’s late winner, coupled with Alyson Birgel’s free kick goal in the 22nd minute, were enough to cancel out an impressive header by Cal senior Emi Lawson in the 49th minute.

Despite facing a top-10 opponent Saturday afternoon, the Cal women’s soccer team had felt confident before the match that it could prevail over the Broncos.

“Going into the game, our mindset was positive,” said Cal senior captain and goalkeeper Emily Kruger. “Everyone had full belief that we could win the game.”

Fellow captain Emi Lawson, the anchor of the Bears’ defense for the past four years and Cal’s lone goal scorer of the day, echoed Kruger’s stance on the squad’s mentality heading into the match.

“We were put up against a team that you’d expect to face in the Elite Eight,” Lawson said. “But Santa Clara had just as tough of a draw in facing us.”

Unfortunately for the Bears, their confidence was not enough to compensate for continued offensive struggles in front of the net and an uncharacteristic mistake by one of the squad’s most experienced players.

In the 70th minute, Cal’s center midfielder and four-year starter Kaitlyn Fitzpatrick was dispossessed by Santa Clara’s Brittany Ambrose in the Bears’ defensive third. With the ball at her feet at the top of the box, Ambrose immediately picked out the run of fellow attacker Huerta. Ambrose’s through ball caught Huerta perfectly in stride, and with only the keeper to beat, she calmly slotted the ball into the bottom right corner of the net for the game-winning goal.

Despite registering 14 shots over the 90 minutes, Cal was unable to find the back of the net more than once and cancel out Huerta’s late strike.

Since a win over Arizona on Oct. 6, Cal failed to score more than one goal in a single game. The Bears found the back of the net only six times during this nine-game span. Sophomore forward Ifeoma Onumonu particularly struggled during the dry spell, failing to put away a single goal after compiling eight in the first 12 matches of the season.

In light of his team’s recent offensive struggles, Cal head coach Neil McGuire shook up the lineup against Santa Clara. He slotted senior forward and captain Rachel Mercik into the central midfield and started with a forward trio of Onumonu and fellow sophomores Samantha Witteman and Celeste Boureille. Nonetheless, Cal’s offensive struggles persisted, and Lawson’s goal off of a Mercik corner at the start of the second half was not enough to earn a win.

After the game, Kruger held a pragmatic view of her team’s performance.

“It would be unfair for me to say that we outplayed them and we deserved to win,” Kruger said. “But we were totally in it … we definitely could have won. But at the end of the day, they did what they needed to do to win, and we didn’t.”

Cal closed the season in fifth place in the Pac-12 and finished with an overall record of 11 wins, 5 draws and 5 losses.

“I’m proud of how the season went overall,” Kruger said. “I’m disappointed that we didn’t do better in the end, but I’m proud of the good moments, and hopefully that’s what people will remember.”

Josh Netter covers women’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected].