The world prepares for slumber in the fall.
Leaves drift from the trees on Sproul Plaza, while squirrels achieve a level of rotundity that the human eye has not yet seen. The city swaddles itself in a blanket of fog and the sun that shines through is the last warm glass of milk before a deep sleep.
The Bears, however, are far from ready for hibernation.
When autumn began, the Cal women’s soccer team strove for a resurgent season. After the dismay of last year’s second-to-last-place conference finish, head coach Neil McGuire and the Bears sought to turn the program around. This time, Cal found a spark that grew to shatter all expectations — setting records and catching the eye of the nation along the way.
And in the face of their biggest rival, who some deem to be the best team in America, they will not yield.
Cal will face No. 2 Stanford away from home Friday in the final match of the regular season.
They may not be the class of Bears that won the Pac-12 title in 1998 or those that reached the NCAA tournament semifinals three times back in the program’s high-flying ‘80s — but upsets against then-No. 7 UCLA and then-No. 4 USC this year mean that the fifth-place Bears are punching above their weight.
Still, they will need to pull out all the stops in order to make this season’s Big Game close.
Stanford has every reason to be confident — they are already Pac-12 champions. The Cardinal locked up their fifth consecutive conference title Halloween night after a 3-0 shutout of Arizona State, remaining undefeated in the Pac-12.
It’s no exaggeration to say the Stanford attackers have been the nation’s best. The Cardinal’s 3.78 goals per game is the NCAA’s top mark, but they also lead the country in almost every offensive statistic — from team goals and team assists to points and shots per game — along with nearly everything in between.
“We have great respect for Coach Paul Ratcliffe and his team,” McGuire said. “They’ve done tremendous things and they’ve set the bar high.”
The Cardinal’s attacking dynamo Catarina Macario won the MAC Hermann Trophy — NCAA soccer’s equivalent of the Heisman — last year. The junior has gotten right back to disassembling defenses this season and her 23 goals are unsurprisingly the most in the nation. Macario owns a whopping 1.28 goals per game average and the Bears’ defense will need to do what no other school has done — keep her off the score sheet.
If anyone can do it, though, the Bears are one of the strongest candidates. Cal has done a tremendous job on the defensive front thus far — their 0.51 goals conceded per game is the lowest in the Pac-12, while freshman goalkeeper Angelina Anderson has turned in a debut season for the record books.
The Bears are coming off back-to-back wins over the Arizona schools in their final homestand of the year and the Cardinal’s seemingly year-long winning streak could come to an end Friday. Cal hopes that junior midfielder Luca Deza can make a return Friday after missing the last three matches because of an apparent injury.
“I think in any season you’ve got players that take bumps and bruises,” McGuire said. “It was the right thing to do to give her the opportunity to recover.”
The Bears need standout performances from every player on the pitch if they are to complete a miracle season — and they will have to do it against a Cardinal side that is not only capable of winning [on] Friday, but winning the entire NCAA tournament. Cal will fight for every point they can get in order to secure their own bid to this year’s College Cup, and three more could make the difference.
We’ve heard the same narrative twice before — once in September and once in October. Both times, it’s been proven so, so wrong.
McGuire’s heard it too. “We look forward to the challenge,” McGuire said.
Kickoff is at 7 p.m. Friday — the match will be televised live on the Pac-12 Networks.
Chanun Ong covers women’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected].