Playoff bound: Cal to play UCSB in first round of NCAA tournament

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Much like standing in a crowd, arms flailing, hoping that a T-shirt will fly your way out of the barrel of a T-shirt cannon, the Bears could only hope they wouldn’t end their season empty-handed.

On Monday morning, the 8-6-3 Cal team’s hopes were fulfilled: they caught a T-shirt. Well, not really. The Bears were selected to play in the first round of the NCAA playoff. On Thursday, Cal will play UC Santa Barbara on the road at Harder Stadium.

Cal assistant coach Jacob Wilson broke the news to the team Monday morning, right at the end of practice.

“Our assistant coach Jacob saw our name come across the board,” said head coach Kevin Grimes. “He just shouted out loud,‘We’re in!’ and then everyone just kind of stopped playing and started celebrating and jumping around, and hugging each other and all that good stuff. (It) was a good way to end training actually, because we were so close to the end anyway and we just ended it on that note, so it was pretty sweet.”

Much of Cal’s jubilation was born of shock. Just weeks ago, Grimes felt that playoffs were out of the picture. Following a 1-0 loss to San Diego State, the Aztecs’ first (and only) Pac-12 win of the year, the Bears would have to beat then-No. 1 Washington and then-No. 4 Stanford in the United Soccer Coaches rankings to have any chance at impressing the selection committee and sneaking into the tournament.

“To do both of those within a week’s time, that’s a massive challenge,” Grimes said.

“Massive challenge” is perhaps an understatement, considering Cal would have to do it on the road.

But, to everyone’s surprise, the Bears did just that. On Nov.7, Cal earned a 3-2 win at Husky Stadium. Just one week later, the Bears eked out a 1-0 win over rival Stanford in Palo Alto. A win, or even a tie, against Oregon State on Nov. 10 would have given Cal a much higher chance of making the tournament. Unfortunately for the Bears, they failed to score in a 1-0 loss to Oregon State.

“We probably would have had, let’s call it ‘security’ if we would have even tied Oregon State, that game we lost in overtime,” Grimes explained.

Nevertheless, the selection committee decided to overlook some rather disappointing losses, especially the defeat at the hands of San Diego State.

“There was not a single team in the country that had three road wins over top-25 RPI (teams) other than Cal,” Grimes said. “We just had significant wins, and significant backing because of that — and I think ultimately they erased the 1-0 loss to San Diego State because two weeks prior, we beat them 4-0.”

UCSB is ranked 23rd in the RPI poll, finishing the season with a record of 12-4-4. Its most notable win came against then-No. 22 Cal State Fullerton, a 5-0 thrashing on the road. The Gauchos have earned 10 clean sheets in total, which means they’re tied for 14th in the country in shutout percentage.

Cal, ranked 49th in the RPI poll because of shockingly high inconsistency, still has reason to believe it can make its way to the second round of the tournament for the first time since 2014.

Back in early September, the Bears beat the Gauchos handily, earning a clean sheet for a 3-0 final score. Additionally, UCSB head coach Tim Von Steeg’s side is coming off of a 2-0 loss to No. 18 UC Davis in the Big West tournament final.

When asked how the team will prepare for Thursday’s matchup, Grimes said the team would do its best to block out the noise.

“I think we just have to stay with what we do and not try to alter a whole lot of what we do, because I think when we stay focused on ourselves, that’s usually the best remedy for us,” Grimes said. “We have to know the opponent and their strengths, of course, but the more we focus on ourselves the better off we are.”

The match will kick off 7 p.m. Thursday.

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