Season snapshots: Cal women’s soccer

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When Rachel Mercik stepped onto the storied turf of Cagan Stadium last fall, she carried the memory of three years of defeat.

The Cal women’s soccer team had fallen to the Cardinal in its last seven meetings, and Mercik had witnessed three of those losses in her time with the Bears. For the former senior forward — and her veteran teammates — Cal’s 2013 faceoff in the South Bay presented one last opportunity for redemption.

But while an upset over then-No. 10 Stanford appeared unlikely from the start, no one could have guessed just how sweet victory would truly feel for the Bears’ senior class. After a slew of losses on the road, a strong showing from Cal’s most experienced players produced a 1-0 win over the Cardinal. The victory would ultimately redefine the team’s postseason outlook.

“For us seniors to win against Stanford — we kind of feel like we are making history,” Mercik said after her team’s upset over Stanford. “I’ve never won here in my four years, and it is something that we are never going to forget.”

From the start, it was clear that the Bears’ upperclassmen were undaunted by their elite opponents. Emily Kruger, Cal’s leading goalkeeper at the time, had just returned to the team after sitting out for the Bears’ previous three games due to a concussion. The seasoned starter kept Stanford to a 0-0 tie at the end of regulation, despite the fact that the Bears were outshot by a 16-shot margin.

Yet, what happened in overtime would be remembered mostly for the work of other Cal veterans.

With less than two minutes left in the first overtime period, the match began to look like it was about to head into a second round of extra minutes. But Mercik — who led the Bears with three shots throughout the evening — wasn’t ready to give the Cardinal that opportunity.

When she saw a long pass from seniormidfielder Kaitlyn Fitzpatrick as the clock steadily ticked down, Mercik bolted. The forward won a footrace with a Stanford defender to reach the ball on its second bounce. As it descended toward the ground, she intercepted its path and sent it soaring past Stanford goalkeeper Jane Campbell. The header scored a golden goal and handed the Bears their first victory against the Cardinal in Neil McGuire’s tenure as Cal’s head coach.

As Mercik’s teammates rushed the field in frenzied celebration, their excitement reflected more than just a landmark victory. After starting off the season with a winning streak that briefly garnered a top-10 ranking, Cal was in the midst of a late-season decline when it faced its Bay Area rivals — threatening its qualification for the playoffs.

But as they rejoiced in their unlikely win over the Cardinal, the Bears knew that they had set themselves back on a postseason path. Their victory revealed that a core of experienced leadership stood at the helm of another solid 2013 regular-season campaign.

Contact Dani Jo Coony at [email protected].