Describing the Bears’ season as chaotic doesn’t quite do it justice, but it is perhaps the only way to aptly summarize the latter half of Cal men’s soccer’s campaign. The blue and gold have oscillated between highs and lows like a Ferris wheel on steroids, rising to big wins and falling to equally baffling losses.
This week epitomized this wild ride. Last week, the Bears lost to the Pac-12’s basement team, San Diego State. It was not only the Aztecs’ first conference win — it also their first conference game that wasn’t a loss.
So what happened? Cal beat No. 1 Washington 3-2, of course, for head coach Kevin Grimes’ school-leading 203rd victory. It was the biggest win of the season for this Bears squad. It put them back on the map; it gave them momentum just in time for, you guessed it, a 1-0 loss at the hands of Oregon State.
The Bears’ win in Seattle was nothing short of a nailbiter. Twice the blue and gold trailed, and twice they rose to the occasion.
“We just never gave up,” said redshirt sophomore Alonzo Del Mundo. “It was just a team effort. Everybody fought to the end.”
Senior right back Simon Lekressner scored his fifth goal of the season and Cal’s first equalizer off a chaotic corner rebound to counter UW senior Gio Miglietti’s early goal. The Huskies would not let up, though, and just 32 seconds later they would retake the lead via junior Blake Bodily’s tight-angled shot.
The Bears trailed 2-1 going into the break but remained focused.
“We had a plan — we stuck to it,” said junior midfielder Francisco Perez. “It was, ‘Hey guys, we got 45 minutes, we’re going to win this if we all stick together as a team. We can do this.’ And that’s what we did.”
Perez’s confidence showed midway through the second half. The Bears withstood Washington’s waves of pressure until their opportunity arose. Perez found himself on the break and he promptly slotted a through ball to Tommy Williamson, Cal’s leading goalscorer, who knotted things up at 2-2.
The game was far from over, but the winds had shifted in the blue and gold’s favor. In the 79th minute, Lekressner and freshman Christian Gomez linked up on the right side of the field and sent in a low cross. Del Mundo made a dead sprint down the pitch, catching the ball just in time and putting the Bears ahead for good.
The Huskies attacked with a wild abandon but could not avoid the upset, and the final whistle blew. It was a monumental result for Cal, making Grimes the coach with the most wins in program history.
“It was a day to remember,” summarized Del Mundo. “We beat the No. 1 team in the country and it was Kevin Grimes’ 203rd win.”
But the ecstasy of victory would not last. On Sunday, the Bears traveled to Corvallis, Ore. and were humbled in an overtime loss to the Beavers.
“We were both fighting for our playoff lives, if you will, both in the same situation,” said assistant coach Jacob Wilson. “They came out and gave everything they got. We countered that and did the same. Sometimes, it’s a game of inches. We had our chances. They had some other ones as well, they were able to put that one away.”
It was a tense, back-and-forth game. Cal’s best opportunity came courtesy of a second-half free kick from Alonzo Del Mundo. The ball seemed perfectly placed into the top right corner, but it was not to be, as Oregon State goalie Adrian Fernandez made the perfect save to keep the score level.
As the match wore on, the Beavers began to use their speed to punish a tired Bears squad. In their third game in a week, fatigue began to show. Oregon State wingers Joel Walker and Raheem Taylor-Parkes took full advantage.
Facilitated by devastating play from French midfielder Sofiane Djeffal, the home team cut Cal’s flanks to shreds, and it was ultimately Taylor-Parkes who scored in the 98th minute, bringing the golden goal overtime to a close.
It was a difficult loss for the Bears, who remained proud despite the fact that their slim playoff hopes have all but disappeared.
“We played throughout the 90. We made a stand; we held our own,” Perez said. “We had that warrior mentality up until the final whistle.”
While a postseason appearance is more or less out of the picture, the Bears will get another opportunity to play spoiler when they visit rivals Stanford on Thursday.
The Cardinal (13-1-3) are No. 4 in the Coaches Poll. Just one point behind Washington in the Pac-12, a win could propel Stanford to its sixth straight Pac-12 title. Undefeated in its last eight games, the Cardinal will be a force to be reckoned with, especially at home, where it has lost only once.
Freshman attacker Ousseni Bouda has been the star man, with five goals and five assists, but underclassmen Gabe Segal, who scored against Cal earlier this season, and Zach Ryan have also been dangerous, with six goals apiece.
In the reverse fixture in Berkeley, the Bears hung with their rivals early on, taking a lead before it was eventually erased in a 2-1 loss. Cal will be hunting for revenge, despite the odds. A win against Stanford would send the Bears off into the sunset with a winning record and the slimmest of slim chances of a phone call from the playoff selection committee.
“We’re looking to bounce back and finish our season strong,” Perez said of his team’s final game of the 2019 regular season.