Nov. 15, 2009

Courtesy of Chico State

LA JOLLA – Grand Eucalyptus trees surround half of Triton Soccer Stadium, which is 50 yards west of a sprawling grove of the twisting, bending behemoths. The trees provided a unique and beautiful setting for what turned out to be a heartbreaking 2-1 loss for the Chico State women’s soccer team at UC San Diego in the second round of the NCAA Championship Saturday. But the trees also provided a representation of the growth of the Chico State women’s soccer team into one of the towering programs in the West Region under Head Coach Kim Sutton and the team’s four fourth-year seniors – Natalie Bensky, Molly McFadden, Alex Rodriguez, and Ali Sward.

Having advanced to the NCAA Championship Tournament in three of the previous five seasons heading into the 2009 campaign, the Wildcats were already among the taller trees in the West Region’s canopy. This season, with another NCAA Championship Tournament berth and their first-ever first-round win, the program seems to have grown into one of the very, very tallest.

“Tonight I feel a lot of pride for everyone who is involved in this program,” said Wildcats Head Coach Kim Sutton. “Even in a loss, I feel like we made a huge positive statement. We were worn out physically and emotionally from a tough match on Thursday and playing a very good and well-rested team on their home field, but we battled them right up until the very end.”

“These young women can hold their heads high knowing that they will always be the first team to win an NCAA Tournament match. That will always be their’s.”

At times Saturday, they looked like they were on the precipice of being the first to win number two as well. Freshman Christine Kearney’s first collegiate goal staked the Wildcats to a 1-0 lead in the 22nd minute. UC San Diego answered with the equalizer 1:31 later, but 62 minutes elapsed before the next goal. Then, with just 4:43 to play, UC San Diego’s Sarah McTigue collected a loose ball in the box following a corner kick and slammed it into the side netting from six yards out for what proved to be the game-winning goal.  

“We did everything we could tonight. We just got worn out down the stretch,” said Sutton. “It’s so hard to have to play that extra match. We just sort of ran out of juice. But credit UC San Diego. They are a very good team and they earned that first round bye with their play all season.”

In what was no surprise to keen observers of the Wildcats during this trip to San Diego that the Wildcats’ goal came on a corner kick. Though they failed to break through on their seven corners against Seattle Pacific on Thursday, it was clear they were getting the kind of opportunities they wanted. On their second corner Saturday, taken by Blake Lopes as usual, Kasey Wall battled to get a head on the ball in front of the net and it squirted toward the top-middle of the box. Kearney acted quickly, running on to the ball and hammering it into the left side of the net.

Apparently uncomfortable playing in a match not tied (They broke the NCAA Division II record for ties in a season on Thursday night with their ninth.), the Wildcats then had a defensive letdown that UC San Diego took advantage to even the score at 1-apiece just 1:31 later. Chico State’s defense was too deep in the box to recover when McTigue took a pass from Jessica Wi and buried into the upper-left corner from 18 yards out.

McTigue’s goals were her seventh and eighth of the season for UC San Diego, which improved to 15-5-1, avenged a 2-0 loss earlier this season in Chico, and advanced to the NCAA Championship Tournament West Region title match against the winner of Sunday’s Cal State Dominguez Hills – Cal State L.A. affair.

Chico State, 2009 Champions of the California Collegiate Athletic Association’s North Division, finished its season at 8-6-9.

The Wildcats put together as many good scoring chances in the first 12 minutes of Saturday’s match then they did in the entire first-round match against Seattle Pacific. Ali Sward got an opportunity from 18 yards about eight minutes in, but failed to put enough power behind her shot. In the 11th minute, Molly Downtain’s header off a corner kick was saved by Tritons’ goalkeeper Kristin Armstrong.

UC San Diego was even crisper on its offensive end, working well as a unit, particularly in its employment of the give-and-go, to put the Chico State defense under duress on a number of occasions. However, they never broke through the last line of defense.

UC San Diego finished with a 17-10 advantage in shots, though the Wildcats notched five shots on goal to the Tritons’ two. Chico State also enjoyed a 4-3 edge in corner kicks.

Sutton also enjoys the knowledge that only four of her players, albeit four very important ones, will be lost to graduation this year. Sward, Bensky, Rodriguez and McFadden have put down deep roots in the program with their strong play and passion. They’ll now watch as the tree they helped to grow vibrant and tall continues to edge into the sky.

“Choosing to become a Wildcat was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” said Bensky. “I’ll always be proud to say that I played soccer here with these women and Coach Sutton.”