There are certain games every season that players circle. Some match-ups just mean more than others. One of those games for the SF State women’s soccer team this year took place at Cox Stadium on Friday.
The Gators suffered their first loss of the season in a heartbreaking overtime battle with rival UC San Diego at Cox Stadium, when senior midfielder Shelby Wong sneaked in a shot to give the Tritons a 2-1 win just two minutes into overtime.
These teams are no strangers. The Gators defeated the Tritons on penalty kicks in the semifinal of the California Collegiate Athletic Association finals en route to the school’s first-ever CCAA title. The Tritons got the last laugh, ending the Gator’s season with a 3-1 victory in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“It’s like a blood feud with them… We just wanted to prove to them that we were the better team and that we’re the stronger team and send them home,” said Gator freshman forward Justine Hernandez, who scored the Gators’ goal.
UC San Diego presented the toughest test of the season so far. The Tritons entered the game at 2-0-2 and ranked #5 in the nation for Division II.
It was a match of drastic momentum shifts.
The Gators were fortunate to get out of the first half with the score knotted at zero. UC San Diego dominated possession and spent the majority of the first half hour in the Gators’ defensive third.
Senior goalkeeper Annicia Jones, who came into the game with a four-match shutout streak, was kept very busy as the Tritons pounded the ball into the goal box in the early going. The Tritons had a total of 9 shots in the first half.
“We looked as if we were a little bit slower, a little bit clumsy at the beginning and they were turning us around,” said SF State head coach Jack Hyde.
The Gators seemed determined to be the more physical team, but their aggressiveness resulted in a number of fouls that led to close range set pieces for the Tritons. SF State was forced to scramble defensively as ball after ball sailed into the penalty box off the free kicks.
“We were trying to just stay afloat. Basically, clear out every ball we could and get it to the boards. That worked during that time period,” Jones said.
It appeared that the Gator’s had faced one too many threats when UC San Diego forward Cassie Callahan guided a header into the net. After a few moments of celebration, it was learned that the offside flag was up and the relieved Gators held their shutout for the time being.
The Gator offense was M.I.A. for the first 35 minutes, until senior forward Kiley Williams changed the energy of the match with a free kick from 30 yards with eight minutes remaining in the half.
With the defense expecting a touch pass, Williams fired a laser that rocketed toward goal and drew an “OOoooo” from the crowd. Though the shot sailed just high off goal, it awoke the Gator players and signaled a momentum shift in the match.
“To have that player that just takes it and is that spark for the team, it really inspires everyone to just be like them. It just gets everyone fired up and wanting to make something happen,” Hernandez said.
Suddenly the Gators were in command, challenging every pass and putting out more effort than their opponent.
That momentum carried into the second half as the Gators continuously out-hustled the Tritons.
“It’s individual little plays that spur the team on and give them a belief,” Hyde said.
In the 52 minute, Hernandez made one of those plays that came out of sheer hustle. She rushed in on a Triton defender and blocked an attempt at clearance. The ball bounced free in the penalty area. Hernandez beat the keeper to the ball and touched it toward goal.
“I managed to get a toe on it, but it went straight into the air, which is not what I wanted to happen. Then a defender headed it back to me, to my amazement, so I just volleyed it straight in,” she said.
It seemed that Hernandez’s goal would be the decider as the Gators continued to dominate. But SF State may have exhausted themselves with that intense effort. The Gators were noticeably fatigued in the final minutes.
The defense was unable to obstruct Triton midfielder Rachel Leslie as she sent in a cross across the open face of goal in the 79 minute. The pass found a leaping Callahan who deflected the ball in for a goal that tied the game at 1-1. It was the first goal allowed by the Gators this season.
“We made a couple of errors and one of the errors was we were attacking and we didn’t quite get back fast enough on the counterattack. We allowed them to come down here and cross the ball and they scored a nice goal,” Hyde said.
The final minutes were frantic. The Gators had two opportunities to retake the lead as the final horn approached. One was a shot from the top of the box by senior forward Kara Cunningham that hit the cross bar. The other was a misaimed shot by Williams, who had gotten behind the defense and had only the keeper to beat.
It took just two minutes into the sudden death overtime for Wong to finish things off. Wong gained a scoring position inside the box with some impressive dribble moves, but it appeared her momentum had carried her too close to the baseline to have an angle to shoot. With the defense expecting a pass, Wong found the slightest of angles into the net.
“She got it in with an impossible angle. Good goal. Not much you can do about it,” Hyde said.
Jones, who came into the game as the top ranked Division II goalkeeper in the nation, had her vision obstructed by defenders and never had a chance to stop the shot.
“I’m blind. I can’t see on my right or left and she’s kicked it already… I never saw it until it was in the net,” Jones said.
The Gators were disappointed to lose to their rival, but also understood that it was just one game in a long season. Jones, for one, is eager to start another shutout streak.
“There’s still plenty of time in the season to build (the shutout streak) back up,” Jones said. “I guess I’ll start from ‘game one.’”