Cal women’s soccer rockets into top 25

Cheyenne Tex/Staff

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Athletes are notoriously superstitious.

A basketball player might have an elaborate pre-free-throw ritual, while an entire baseball team can give their pitcher the silent treatment if he’s tossing a no-hitter. For the remaining 99.9 percent of the population that isn’t a high-level athlete, but superstitions can be as strong as ever — avoid black cats, don’t walk under ladders, and 21 is a lucky number.

Perhaps the last one is incorrect, though, because No. 21 Cal women’s soccer has had more than just luck this season. The Bears are one of five ranked Pac-12 teams, and their 7-0 record is good for their best start since the 2000 season. With an ironclad defense in front of a formidable keeper, the Bears will look to remain undefeated through their last two matches before Pac-12 play begins.

A jump into the top 25 has come with recognition of the defense responsible, as Cal’s sophomore captain Emily Smith and freshman goalkeeper Angelina Anderson received Pac-12 Team of the Week honors. It was a second consecutive selection for Smith, who leads the Cal back line that kept six consecutive clean sheets to start the season — the second-longest shutout streak in program history. Anderson, the U.S. women’s national team’s star under-17 goalkeeper, rounded up anything that snuck past Smith and Co., making a spectacular diving save in the 79th minute of Sunday’s match to prevent a certain Santa Clara goal.

Cal will take on unranked UC Riverside and Portland at home at the end of this week. After a win over Santa Clara last Sunday, the Bears should not expect major problems this weekend. A loss against either team, however, will surely send Cal crashing out of the top 25. The two games this weekend will also be the Bears’ final tuneups before they head down to Westwood and face No. 5 UCLA next week.

UC Riverside comes to Berkeley this Friday fresh off back-to-back wins against Houston and Idaho, but before the team’s modest winning streak the Highlanders had dropped four straight — including a 5-0 humiliation at the hands of USF. Riverside (2-4) has scored only four goals in six matches, and with the defensive form the Bears have shown recently, fans should expect Cal to keep its seventh clean sheet of the season. Kickoff will be at 2 p.m. Friday at Edwards Stadium.

Portland, meanwhile, has a 2-2-2 record — winning against New Mexico and Denver and losing to Seattle and No. 4 North Carolina. The Pilots also drew against Oregon and Washington, two of Cal’s Pac-12 opponents, earlier this season. A win against Portland should solidify the Bears’ confidence against their conference rivals — Cal will need to win as many matches as it can to keep pace with No. 2 USC, No. 3 Stanford and No. 5 UCLA in the Pac-12 title race. The Bears’ final nonconference match will kick off at noon Sunday at Edwards Stadium.

One player to watch in both games will be junior Emma Westin, whose performance was key in the important win over Santa Clara on Sunday. The Swedish midfielder’s exceptional stamina has allowed her to be a true box-to-box presence, and her nose for goal has been essential to the Bears’ hot start — she is tied for second in the Pac-12 in scoring and leads the Bears with seven goals.

Attacking midfielder Paige Metayer has also flown under the radar, and her nifty dribbling skills could make an impact this weekend. The Bears’ head coach Neil McGuire clearly values her ability to string together an attack — the sophomore has started every game and has seen the second-most minutes of any Cal outfield player.

The No. 21 Bears have been as consistent as their record and ranking suggest, and, barring any surprises, they should come out of this weekend 9-0. This level of excellence hasn’t been seen for 19 years, and Cal fans should take notice — if wins keep on coming, the Bears’ lucky number could be far lower than 21.

Chanun Ong covers women’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected].