Success at Stanford may have saved Cal’s season

Sam Albillo/Staff

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Reaching into a bag of Starburst candy, one never knows if they will secure a highly coveted, mouthwatering pink Starburst or walk away frowning, having grabbed a  disappointing orange one.

It seems each game Cal played this season was like reaching into a bag of assorted Starbursts. The team has earned some head-turning wins. It’s also lost to relatively poor teams on multiple occasions.

That inconsistency, while frustrating for Bears fans, will make for an interesting selection Monday when, at 10 a.m. PST, the NCAA men’s soccer selection committee decides whether or not the Bears are among the top 48 teams in the country and have earned a spot in the 2019 NCAA tournament.

This Thursday, the Bears reached into the metaphorical bag of Starbursts and picked out a pink one. The 1-0 win over Stanford, ranked No. 4 in the United Soccer Coaches Poll, on the road to keep the Cardinal from winning their 6th consecutive Pac-12 title was a juicy pink Starburst for blue and gold fans, to say the least.

The only goal of the game came from Cal’s leading scorer, junior forward Tommy Williamson’s ninth of the season. His 56th-minute penalty conversion was enough to earn the win, as the Bears’ back line managed to keep the Cardinal out.

“Well, I always just try to not overthink anything and just focus on what I’m going to do, where I want to send the keeper,” said Williamson of his goal. “I kind of wanted to send him to my right side by opening my hips and then just slotting it to the left. I was practicing in practice too. It was just good he went to my right side and I was able to put in the back of the net.”

After losing 1-0 to Oregon State last Sunday, Bears fans had little reason to believe that Cal could pull off the road upset against a highly ranked Stanford team. The Cardinal had already beaten the Bears 2-1 at Edwards Stadium back in late September.

Nevertheless, Cal earned a clean sheet against a Stanford squad that had only been shut out once all season.

“We just were very smart in the back,” said head coach Kevin Grimes. “The guys attacked really well but they also stayed home when they needed to, so I think they had a really good blend of each facet 0f when to take chances and when to stay in their shape and hold the fort.”

Statistically, hardly anything separated the two teams. Stanford had 13 shots and two corners to Cal’s 9 shots and one corner. In other words, there was very little luck involved in the Bears’ eighth win of the season.

“It honestly just feels like the puzzle pieces finally fell together,” said Williamson. “There have just been so many games where it’s been so close and there’s just been like one percent missing. It’s just nice to have everything fall to our advantage this time and come out with a win. It was awesome.”

Despite multiple poor showings this year, including losses against Denver, Portland and San Diego State, Cal is now very much in playoff contention. Sunday’s win marked their third of the season over a top-16 RPI opponent, all of them on the road.

A 3-0 win against now No. 16 UCSB, a 1-0 win over now-No. 10 Washington, and last Thursday’s win over now No. 8 Stanford are some delectable pink Starbursts the NCAA tournament selection committee will have to take into account.

“When the team is committed like they were tonight and last Thursday, and even in some games behind us in the past weeks, they can do incredible things,” said Grimes. “We’re going to wait and see if our name is called on Monday for the NCAA playoffs because we have three wins over top 16 teams in the RPI and they’re all on the road, so we’re not out of it yet.

At the moment, Cal sits at 70th in the RPI rankings. Because the tournament includes just the top 48 teams, it is still a long shot that the Bears make an appearance. Grimes, of course, wants his team to be ready in case their name is called.

“I just told them that the next three days we have to prepare like we have another game. We’re not sure if we do, but we have to be considered because of those three wins on the road against some top RPI teams. We have to be in consideration for the playoff,” said Grimes.

Today, the selection committee will have to sort through Cal’s collection of Starburst candies. The Bears will cross their fingers and hope that those three pink Starbursts make up for the orange ones.

William Cooke covers men’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected].