So excruciatingly close, but yet no cigar.
Looking for an all-important statement win this last week, Cal entered Southern California with the hopes of knocking off either of the two best teams in the Pac-12. Instead, the Bears found themselves on the wrong end of two very closely played matches, as they fell 1-0 to UCLA in double overtime and 2-0 to USC.
“The team is devastated coming away with two losses after playing so well,” said head coach Neil McGuire. “I think first you have to credit USC and UCLA — two outstanding teams and programs well coached. But we could have taken something out of both matches, especially that UCLA game.”
The Bears played as well as a team could without leaving LA with a win, fighting tough against the Bruins on Sunday for over 103 minutes before finally conceding the winning goal to UCLA’s leading scorer Mia Fishel. It was the Bruins’ 15th shot of the day, but it was the only one to find the back of the net thanks to Cal goalie Angelina Anderson’s five saves.
Following a common theme throughout the season, though, the Bears’ offense struggled to produce any consistent output, while the defense electrified in its ability to completely derail opponents’ attacks.
The offense’s performance against UCLA was actually a much better showing than games past, as the Bears put up 13 shots despite not scoring — though only two were shots on goal. Their earlier matchup against USC highlighted their scoring struggles, however, as they only managed two total shots against the conference leaders.
Despite the Thursday game settling into a close 2-0 final score, beating USC was out of reach for Cal since nearly the beginning. The Trojans scored two goals during a 10-minute stretch in the first half, leaving the Bears with little chance to make a comeback against USC’s stout defense.
The No. 10 Trojans were successfully able to shut down Karlie Lema — Cal’s leading goal scorer and best offensive option — as the freshman phenom was held without a shot during her 72 minutes played.
“I think that as those three get more comfortable playing together, we hope it’ll progress by creating more goalscoring opportunities and turning those into goals,” McGuire said of the new adjustment (putting Ari Manrique and Emma Westin up front with Lema).
Lema was much more effective Sunday, posting four shots, two of which were on goal. Two other Bears also recorded multiple goal scoring opportunities, as midfielders Marleen Rohde and Mia Fontana had three and two shots, respectively.
Despite how fierce the Bears played against some of the best teams in the country, close losses still count the same as any other loss. With just one game left in the season, Cal now sits a game under .500 in the Pac-12 and is most likely well out of the tournament.
Cal’s biggest resume flaw is its lack of an impressive, quality win. Ranking seventh in the Pac-12, the Bears’ four Pac-12 wins and one tie have all come against teams which are below them in the standings — they have already lost to every top-five team except Stanford, who they play this week. Meanwhile, their best performance in the non-conference was a 1-1 tie against formerly No. 1 ranked Santa Clara, but the Broncos have since fallen to No. 25 in the country.
The good news for the blue and gold is that they will have yet another chance of getting this type of win, as they’ll travel to the Farm to take on No. 9 Stanford. The Cardinal, who are coming off a 3-2 loss to USC, are currently in fourth place in the conference and present another challenging opponent to the desperate Bears.
Cal will just have to make sure to finish the job this time, leaving no room for the shoulda, coulda, woulda’s of another close game.
Noah Parker covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected].