Stymied by Stanford, Cal stumbles in season finale

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Josh Kahen/Senior Staff

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On a crystal clear day in the Bay Area, Witter Rugby Field was beginning to feel a lot like home for the Cal women’s soccer team. A modest wave of blue and gold — a thirty-person audience — filled the padded bleachers for the first time this season with brightly colored balloons and bouquets of flowers.

“It was a really special moment,” said redshirt junior defender Kailee Gifford, “We didn’t know if we would even be playing games or training this season, let alone get to directly play in front of friends and family.”

Friday was supposed to be a grand season finale for Cal, a Senior Day sendoff for its graduating players. But rival Stanford spoiled the celebrations by clobbering the Bears 1-0 in 93 minutes of action.

“The team (Cal) was very focused in their preparation and build up to the game. They were intent on getting the details right,” said head coach Neil McGuire via email. “We knew it was going to come to one moment in overtime and each team would have a chance or two.”

For the first 45 minutes, it looked like anyone’s game. A standstill scoreline of 0-0 at halftime saw plenty of changes in possession, a couple of offside calls signaled and balanced aggression that materialized into multiple fouls on both sides.

While the Cardinal outshot the Bears six shots to one in the first half, the home team’s back line kept its focus. Seldom faltering under pressure, Cal upperclassmen Gifford, Abena Aidoo, Sydney Collins and Emily Smith together forged a near-impassable defense by relentlessly sliding to win tackles and clearing balls. Equally impressive was sophomore goalkeeper Angelina Anderson, who racked up six total saves by the end of the match.

“Our team was incredibly committed to winning our individual matchups,” Gifford said. “Everyone had the mentality to look at the Stanford player in front of them and think ‘You will not beat me’ and it was very apparent. Even though we ultimately fell short, I will never forget the determination we had to keep the ball out of our net.”

Statistically speaking, the second half was a similar story. As the Cardinal mostly controlled possession, the Bears’ offensive struggles continued when approaching their final third. To try and spur an attack, McGuire experimented with multiple substitutions. But Cal only tallied one additional shot to bring its total to an abysmal two on the day.

All the while, Stanford more than doubled its scoring attempts, finishing regular time with 12 total shots, six of which were on goal. In perhaps the closest opportunity to end the game early, Cardinal freshman forward Samantha Williams nearly tucked in a shot in the 52nd minute that bounced off the right goalpost and into the hands of a diving Anderson.

Though scoreless by the 90th minute, Stanford’s lineup remained just as dialed in for overtime. Just under three minutes into the extra period, Cardinal midfielder Kiki Pickett sent a through ball assist to forward Civana Kuhlmann, who slid a shot through the right side of the goal and abruptly ended the game.

As a result, the Bears finished the 2020-21 season with an overall record of 5-7-1 and conference record of 3-7-0. Sitting near the bottom of the Pac-12, Cal failed to earn a bid to the NCAA tournament after selections were announced Monday. Nevertheless, McGuire made it clear that there’s a bright future for the program just around the corner.

“The quality of our play over the course of the season was very good, and we will learn and grow from those experiences,” McGuire said via email. “From day one, each player bought into our process and were there for one another. The team unity and the character of the group was exceptional.”

Ryan Chien covers women’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected].