Witter Rugby Field has been quiet for some time now. Over the past year, relatively few games have been played at the lonely AstroTurf pitch behind Memorial Stadium. But at the end of 90 minutes Sunday night, Witter was quiet no more.
The Cal men’s soccer team fans, who now trek up the steep hill outside of the grounds to the north of the pitch to watch the Bears play, had their car keys at the ready as the final seconds of Cal’s 1-0 win over No. 3 Oregon State ticked down. When the horn sounded, a symphony of car alarms from the parking lot below congratulated the Bears on their improbable upset against one of the best teams in the nation.
The win was all the sweeter considering Cal’s historically poor start to the season. Head coach Kevin Grimes made sure to give all of the credit to his players.
“The players are just completely dialed in to improvement, and they’re completely dialed in to the process of getting themselves back into game form and game fitness,” Grimes said. “We could have been a bit hard on ourselves after starting 0-3 but I think the guys saw that there really is only one way out of this. We have to work our way out of it and we have to kind of claw our way out of it, if you will.”
In the first ten minutes of the match, the Bears, who had lost to the Beavers 4-0 in their last meeting back in early March, looked as though they would suffer a similar result again. Oregon State dominated possession, and attacking midfielder Mouhameth Thiam was giving Cal’s defense fits with his pace down the left.
After the first fifteen minutes in which the Beavers were on the front foot, the Bears settled into the match and began to possess the ball more. An Oregon State counter-attack in the 27th minute, during which midfielder Tyrone Mondi hit the left post, gave Grimes and his team a scare, but the shot amounted to nothing more.
In the final 10 seconds of the half, a Cal cross from the left byline grazed across the face of goal, and neither of two consecutive shots by forward Nate Carrasco and midfielder Adrian Guzman found the back of the net. But the huge opportunity gave the Bears some confidence heading into half time.
“I think they felt really good about where they were at that moment as a group. Like ‘Hey, guys, we should probably be walking into this half up 1-0’,” Grimes said. “And so even though we didn’t score the goal I think It did give them confidence that they were going to come out and have a good second half.”
And that they did. In the 59th minute, a through ball from winger Alonzo Del Mundo found left-back Christopher Grey on an overlapping run. Grey’s left-footed cross skimmed across the six yard box, and a half-clearance from an Oregon State defender gave the ball to sophomore midfielder Juan Martinez, who played as a center forward in the second half, at the penalty spot. His first-time, right-footed finish into the bottom left corner is his first goal for Cal.
“Getting my first goal for Cal and the dub against such a big team like Oregon State, it was a great feeling,” Martinez said.
For the rest of the match, the Bears sat in and defended. Goalkeeper Collin Travasos finished with five saves, including a huge save in the 74th minute to stop midfielder Javier Armas’ blistering effort to find the top-left corner. The Beavers’ bench appealed for handballs every chance it got, but to no avail.
Ultimately, Cal’s impressive defending in Oregon State’s attacking third was the difference in this game. Centerback JJ Foe Nuphaus played as a holding midfielder in this one alongside midfielder Francisco Perez, and midfielder Jack Singer filled in Nuphaus’s spot next to centerback Ian Lonergan. The four of them provided the structure and quality the Bears needed to beat the No. 3 team in the nation.
“JJ’s had a lot of experience playing holding midfielder as a youth player and also on the U.S. national youth teams and Jack [Singer] has just been rock solid at center back. I mean, he’s just done a great job and nothing really gets through him,” Grimes said. “Ian and him are a really good partnership. I think it’s allowed us to get JJ back in a position that he is comfortable with.”
Needless to say, the faces of the Oregon State players were longer than their left back’s mustache, and Witter Rugby Field was louder than it has been in quite some time.
William Cooke covers men’s soccer and is a deputy sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]