Senior Kiley Williams and freshman Justine Hernandez scored to help the SF State women’s soccer team to a crucial victory in a rough-and-tumble matchup with Chico State Friday at Cox stadium.
“It’s always a very exciting matchup,” said head coach Jack Hyde. “It’s always a rivalry and it’s always exciting.”
The Gators entered the game trailing Chico State by three points in the race for the fourth and final spot in the California Collegiate Athletic Association playoffs. With just five games remaining in the regular season, the win puts the Gators in striking distance of qualifying for a chance at repeating their 2010 postseason appearance.
“We want to go on. There is nothing stopping us. There’s nothing in our way right now,” said junior defender Nicole Smith.
The teams squared off in an intensely fought first half. The referee’s whistle remained silent on a number of early hard challenges. The players responded by ramping up the physicality of play.
The Gators attacked the left side of the Wildcat defense throughout the game. Early on, they sent a number of threatening crosses from the area, but each was directed too close to goal and swallowed by the keeper.
Williams put the Gators on top on the 19 minute with a rare unassisted goal off a corner kick. Williams fired a low line drive corner that hooked just enough to catch the far post and drop just inches across the scoring line. The Wildcat keeper, expecting the kick to be a pass, was caught unaware as the ball sailed over her head.
“I hit it on the wrong side of my foot and luckily it just went in,” Williams said. “I didn’t even know it went in, so I was pretty surprised.”
SF State’s advantage lasted just 57 seconds. After the resumption of play, the Wildcats were awarded a free kick in their defensive end. Some of the Gators disagreed with the call. As they argued with the ref, Wildcat defender Molly Downtain took a quick free quick. Her long ball bounced perfectly into the stride of forward Shelby Dunlap who had snuck behind the defense in the confusion. Dunlap used a one touch looping shot to clear over Gator keeper Annicia Jones and into the net as the bewildered Gators looked on.
“They made a quick play. We got caught off our guard and we were still celebrating [the SF State goal],” said Smith.
The teams entered the half knotted at 1-1.
The halftime break did nothing to quash the physicality on the field. Players routinely looked for contact over possession and the chippiness increased. Each call from the officials was met by angry derision by the offending side. The Gators have made a living on their intensity all season. The rough style of the game played to their advantage.
For much of the second half, the Gators were able to stifle the Chico attack. Freshman Stephanie Vanni and sophomore Kristen Powers performed admirably in replacing injured regular backline starters Lauren Duran and Kaitlin Dick.
“We have a deep defense and I trust every single person that plays defense to come in and step it up,” Smith said.
As the half wore on, the Gators continued to attack the left side of the Wildcat defense. This tactic finally paid off on the 64 minute when freshman Justine Hernandez connected on a long cross by Powers from the left of goal. As the cross bounced into the box, Williams made a dummy run to the near post that drew the Chico keeper forward. By the time the ball reached Hernandez’s foot, she was all alone in front of the open mouth of goal. She hammered the ball home for her third goal of the year.
The Gators controlled the game for most of the remaining minutes of the match. Both Williams and Hernandez had opportunities to give the SF State an insurance goal, but each was unable to close their scoring chance.
The Gators looked to be cruising to a much-needed victory until the Wildcats mustered an offensive barrage in the final moments. Chico earned five corner kicks in the last five minutes of play. Each corner presented a scoring threat that the Gators narrowly survived.
“It was crazy. It was intense. We were all trying to clear but the ball just wouldn’t go,” Smith said.
With less than a minute to play, the last corner resulted in a shot by Chico midfielder Halima Abdekshife that looked certain to land in the top corner of the net. Jones needed perhaps her best save of the season to get a diving punch to the ball.
The Gators survived the onslaught and escaped with the victory.
It’s still far too early to tell where the win will register in the pursuit of a playoff spot. The Gators have five tough games remaining in the regular season. Three of SF State’s four losses this year came against teams that are still lurking on the schedule.
The Gators hope to continue the march to the playoffs when they face Cal State Stanislaus on Sunday.
“This was really important for us. I think we have an amazing chance of going out and winning the next five games,” Williams said.