Despite early exit from postseason, Cal women’s soccer has strong regular season

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A first-round exit in the NCAA Tournament is not the type of end to an impressive regular season that the Cal women’s soccer team would have hoped for. But that was exactly what it dealt with at the hands of Loyola Marymount University. The Bears played one of their sloppiest games of year, and unfortunately for the team, it came at the worst possible stage.

“There’s nothing worse — as a coach, as a set of players, as a team, as a program — when you work hard for something all year long and, in the first game of the tournament, you probably play your overall worst game of the season,” said Cal head coach Neil McGuire. “It’s hard to swallow. You have to give credit to LMU. They took away some of our strengths. But we were poor, and quite frankly, LMU deserved to win.”

The loss, however, didn’t accurately encapsulate how well the team played this year. Throughout the season, the Bears displayed the quality of a well-rounded team capable of making an impact at the national level.

Their impressive performances were often led by junior forward Arielle Ship, who became the first Pac-12 Player of the Year in Cal history. Ship spearheaded a deadly offense that tallied 34 goals, and she notched 14 of them herself.

Her chemistry with senior forwards Samantha Witteman and Celeste Boureille exemplified the type of offensive unit capable of breaking down any defense. Ship served the role of a de facto midfield maestro who could change the direction of a game with a clever pass and dangerous shot on goal. Witteman roamed the flanks, using her blistering pace to recover possession and provide her teammates with service in the 16-yard box. Boureille effectively used her height to battle for nearly every ball in the air, and she would strategically use her strong technical skills to hold on to the ball until she spotted an opening in front of the goal.

The trio guided the team to victory, but Cal’s solid defense helped close games. Sophomore defender Annia Mejia, who earned the Bears’ final Pac-12 Player of the Week honor after the last week of the regular season, was at the helm of a reliable defense that conceded only 14 goals and limited its foes to a .378 shots-on-goal percentage. Cal played a considerably clean game all season, as it picked up only 13 yellow cards and not a single red card.

But the Bears were still prone to a few defensive lapses. Fortunately for them, sophomore goalkeeper Emily Boyd often came through with crucial saves. She routinely got the better of her opponents in one-on-one scenarios and showcased her confidence in the air, as she would clear the ball from danger during corner kicks.

Her heroics between the posts earned her a spot in the All-Pac-12 Second Team. She also set the record for single-season shutouts with 11. The sophomore concluded her campaign with a .854 save percentage, a .57 goals-against average and a 3-3 against penalty kicks.

Boyd and her fellow Bears had the quality to compete for the top prize in the nation. It won’t be easy for Cal, however, to build off this year’s regular-season form, considering that Boureille and Witteman will not be returning. Nevertheless, McGuire will need to ensure that he can smoothly transition a few of his bench players into the starting lineup.

“The senior class was exceptional in their effort, their skillset,” McGuire said. “They led us well, so we have a lot of growing up to do. We have a lot of underclassmen that haven’t had a lot of time. They’ve got their work cut out to catch up, and it’s going to be a real grind between now and next August to get our players more matured, more prepared and ready to compete and represent Cal.”

Manny Flores covers women’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @manny_0.