Captain Steve Birnbaum knew he had drilled it. The defender found himself 35 yards from the Bradley net in Cal’s second-round NCAA matchup, but the captain still rocketed a shot on net.
The crowd at Edwards Stadium watched in awe as the ball soared through the air, taking a few seconds to cover the distance to the net. The ball flew over the outstretched fingers of Braves’ keeper Brian Billings and under the bar.
“Everybody was yelling shoot, so I let it go,” Birnbaum said. “I knew I hit it well.”
In his first game back from an ankle injury, the senior’s wonder strike put the Bears up 2-0. Behind Birnbaum’s play and two goals from fellow senior Alec Sundly, the Bears (12-4-2, 6-3-1 in the Pac-12) prevailed, 3-1, against Bradley on Sunday in Berkeley, advancing to the third round of the tourney.
“I knew the guys were going to be ready today,” said coach Kevin Grimes. “They were tired of training; I could see it in their faces the last two days. They were ready to battle.”
The first 20 minutes of the game were a back-and-forth struggle, so it took a beautiful combination play from Sundly to finally break the Bradley defense. A simple give-and-go with Seth Casiple sprung Sundly, who hammered home a left-footed strike to the corner of the goal, putting Cal up 1-0.
Birnbaum then made his return felt in the 35th minute with his deep strike, putting Cal up 2-0 and seemingly in control. The Braves (14-6-2, 3-1-1 in the MVC) started to show some signs of frustration, throwing their hands up in exasperation after missed passes.
“We beat University of Connecticut when they were No. 1 in the country. We beat Northwestern when they were No. 3,” said Bradley coach Jim Derose. “But this is the best team we have played in a couple of years. We haven’t seen a team like (Cal).”
Coming out of the half, Bradley was not about to keel over.
Less than a minute into the second frame, forward Christian Ozeke connected with fellow forward Wojciech Wojcik in the middle of the 18-yard box, leading to an easy goal to cut the lead to one.
After the goal, there were some nervous moments for the Bears, especially after keeper Alex Mangels bobbled a shot and almost gave the Braves the equalizer.
But then Sundly pulled through for his team again. On a low centering pass from midfielder Connor Hallisey, the senior used a quick redirection to fool Billings and net his second goal of the contest. It was the 57th minute, it was 3-1 and Cal was once again in the driver’s seat.
“The goal came out of chemistry,” Sundly said. “We know each other so well that when Connor put his head up, I made the front-post run.”
After falling behind by two again, the Braves seemed to accept their fate. The team was tired and unable to create any other opportunities. When the final whistle blew, Cal remained on top, 3-1.
With the win, Cal advances to the third round of the NCAA Tournament and will face Coastal Carolina on Dec. 1. Whichever team they play, the Bears look poised to make their first Final Four run in school history, with a favorable schedule, which has the team playing every game up until the semifinals at home.
“Having the home games set up for us gives us more incentive to win,” Birnbaum said. “We want to win for the fans, for the alumni, but we also want to make history.”