It was a cold November evening on the Pacific coast and the Cal men’s soccer team was returning home from their first-round playoff game at UC Santa Barbara empty-handed.
The game? Lost. The season? For the Bears, at least, it was over.
Cal’s 2019 campaign had started with high hopes. In August, midfielder Taylor Davila had been both blunt and audacious in his assessment of his team’s goals.
“Our goal is first to win the Pac-12, and ultimately to win a national championship,” Davila said.
A fourth-place conference finish and an exit in the first round of the NCAA tournament hardly meet those lofty expectations. Measured against their own ambitions, such a finish is hardly successful, but the Bears’ season merits more objective analysis.
Cal entered 2019 as a wild card. Its previous season had seen the blue and gold endure a six-game losing streak en route to a disappointing finish, but the starting lineup had been unusually young. This season, the coaching staff hoped that their squad’s previous trial by fire would produce results.
Inexperience still plagued the Bears, inconsistency is the hallmark of such a trait. Cal men’s soccer could play up to the level of the best, and stumble against their lowliest opponents, often rising and falling to the particular occasion.
This tendency brought both the highest and lowest moments of the Bears’ season. In a two-week window, Cal lost to San Diego State at home, handing the Aztecs their only Pac-12 win, and Oregon State, an overtime defeat which condemned the blue and gold to a fourth-place conference finish.
Between those games, though, the Bears beat then-No. 1 Washington and No. 4 Stanford, arguably the two biggest upsets in college soccer this season. Both victories came on the road, and the triumph in Washington made head coach Kevin Grimes the winningest coach in school history.
Those wins were the reasons behind Cal’s surprising trip to the NCAA tournament, and even though the Bears would depart the competition in its first stage, Grimes had only good things to say of his team’s performance.
“They played through the line every game to end the season,” Grimes said. “They did a phenomenal job, they just came up a little bit short tonight.”
It would be tempting to compound the disappointment of the 3-1 loss to UCSB, though. The Gauchos avenged a 3-0 regular-season defeat at the hands of the Bears, and Cal’s loss left commentators wondering whether it deserved a place in the NCAA tournament at all.
Closer examination reveals nuance. UCSB is the only unseeded team playing in the quarterfinals of the College Cup, and the Bears are the only team to score a goal on the Gauchos in tournament play.
There are still more positive details for Cal fans to take home. The blue and gold finished with two players, senior defender Simon Lekressner and Davila, earning All-Conference First Team honors. Lekressner, in particular, had a fantastic season, scoring a personal best of 5 goals and capturing the Pac-12 Men’s Soccer Scholar-Athlete of the Year award.
Three more Bears would make the All-Conference Second Team and another three would make the All-Conference Third Team. In total, eight Cal players were honored across all three All-Conference teams, a number that only Stanford would match.
Those honors speak to a hopeful future as well. Six of those eight awarded Bears will return in 2020, and they are only a small contingent of returners.
“We get a lot of returning players. We return nine starters, we return 23 out of 27 guys. It’s a huge, massive group coming back,” Grimes said. “We’re pretty excited about spring and next season.”
While that next season is far in the future, the additional experience should only aid Cal. Tomorrow appears to be bright for the Bears.