Cal eyes NCAA tournament bid after win over San Diego State

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In the final minutes of the match, with Cal cruising to a 3-1 win over San Diego State, a lone golden firework went off miles to the east of Witter Rugby Field. The fans who sat on the north sideline in the lightly populated bleachers — which were reserved for player guests — turned for a moment and waited for another to go off. As it turned out, it would be the only one to reach the night sky. But the boom, which was delayed by about 5 seconds, caught the attention of nearly everyone in attendance.

Much like the Bears’ season, the firework was somewhat disappointing to start. The excitement of holding a season after it was cancelled in the fall was quickly replaced by the grim reality of struggling to earn results in one of the toughest conferences in the country.

Then, suddenly — boom. A flurry of impressive wins caught the attention of everyone who follows the team.

As junior holding midfielder JJ Foe Nuphaus astutely pointed out in a post-game interview, the Saturday night game in Berkeley followed a similar path. The Aztecs flew out of the gates as junior Tristan Weber’s 35-yard effort found the top right corner just five minutes in. Cal found itself in yet another 0-1 deficit against San Diego State, which currently sits at the bottom of the Pac-12 with only one win to its name.

Cal head coach Kevin Grimes expressed his displeasure with how his team began the game and emphasized the need to correct his team’s tendency to start slowly.

“We’ve got one game left and we have got to make sure that all 90 minutes count. We gave away five or seven minutes tonight at the beginning and they made us pay for it, and good teams will do that,” Grimes said. “Next week, from the first moment of the game when the whistle blows, we have got to keep that intensity and sharpness all the way through.”

But after a rough start, the Bears turned it on. Cal, which looked like the better team for the rest of the match, equalized in the 26th minute when freshman midfielder Evan Davila’s bouncing shot across goal found the bottom left corner.

The link up play between senior left back Christopher Grey and substitute left-forward Fahmi Ibrahim was beautiful towards the end of the half. Grey’s cross in the 30th minute, which came after Ibrahim’s through ball hit the left-back’s overlapping run in stride, nearly found midfielder Christian Gomez at the back post. By the end of the first half, the Bears felt confident that they could salvage a result.

“It looked like we came out of the gates slowly. But credit to them, they scored a fantastic goal. The team needed to respond and they did,” Grimes said. “We got a critical goal from Evan to tie it and go into half-time. We felt good about where we were and that was a key to the game.”

Cal looked sharp in the second half, in large part thanks to dominant midfield play. Nuphaus, who recently began playing at the holding midfielder position rather than as a centerback, bossed the midfield alongside senior Francisco Perez.

Then, the goals came. Perez earned a penalty for the Bears in the 50th minute, and junior striker Jonathan Estrada sent goalkeeper Tetsuya Kadono the wrong way to put the blue and gold up 2-1. A counter attack led by Perez just six minutes later was finished off by Nuphaus, whose 19-yard rocket found the right side-netting and pushed the game beyond the Aztecs’ reach.

Nuphaus reflected on how far Cal has come since the beginning of the season.

“After those first couple of results, we had to take a look back and really reimagine ourselves,” Nuphaus said. “We had something that we thought would work before and, when it didn’t, we were then able to shift gears. Everyone embraced new roles, new responsibilities.”

With a road win against UCLA next Saturday, Cal may earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament in Cary, North Carolina.

“The playoff aspiration is something that we’re definitely not ignoring,” Nuphaus said. “These last couple of results have opened up that possibility for a playoff run and we do realize that. But at the end of the day, what we’ve really been banking on is our performances game-to-game. Every game for us has just been looking better and better.”

William Cooke covers men’s soccer and is a deputy sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].