Dwayne Shaffer keeps it simple.
In a season of countless accomplishments, UC Davis‘ men’s soccer coach continues narrowing things to a single goal: The Aggies need to finish among the Big West Conference’s top four teams to qualify for the league tournament.
With two regular season games to go, that tournament has already begun.
The first-place Aggies find themselves halfway through a four-game set in which they face the rest of the Big West’s top five teams.
“That’s kind of what I told the guys,” Shaffer said. “It’s down to a four-game sequence for us.“
No. 8 UC Davis (15 points) began the set Wednesday with a come-from-behind win over Cal State Northridge (nine points), which was previously unbeaten in Big West play. The Aggies overcame another deficit to battle No. 20 UC Irvine (seven points) to a draw on Saturday.
“We’re unbeaten in that four-game season, so that’s great,” Shaffer joked. “We have the most points in the conference, so everybody’s chasing us right now.“
Things won’t get any easier for UC Davis.
Odds are it’s about to get tougher.
The Aggies travel to Cal Poly on Sunday before hosting No. 16 UC Santa Barbara to close out the regular season on Nov. 8. The Mustangs and Gauchos sit in third (11 points) and second place (13 points), respectively.
UC Davis wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Playing the top four teams in our conference in our last four games – I mean, that’s very exciting,” said senior midfielder Sule Anibaba. “It’s like playoffs before playoffs. That’s really helpful because you go into playoffs playing hard. Every game matters.“
UC Davis‘ next test came at Cal Poly, where a crowd of 11,075 packed Alex G. Spanos Stadium to watch the Mustangs fall to the Gauchos on Oct. 17.
For the Aggies to leave San Luis Obispo with a victory, they’ll have to do what UCSB did: score first.
This has been a problem for UC Davis as of late. Used to playing with the lead, the Aggies found themselves battling from behind against fourth- and fifth-place Cal State Northridge and UC Irvine.
They were able to turn those deficits into points, but would need some luck to do the same against Cal Poly and UCSB.
“It’s definitely an issue that we need to start dealing with,” said senior captain Dylan Curtis.
The Aggies (12-2-3, 4-1-3) have shown they can overcome adversity.
UC Davis entered its regular-season-ending, four-game set coming off a lackluster week by its standards. It tied a sixth-place Cal State Fullerton team it should have beaten before losing to last-place UC Riverside to snap an 11-game unbeaten streak on Oct. 17.
“To be honest with you, I just think [that week] was an accumulation of everything we’ve went through the entire season,” Shaffer said. “We were on such an emotional high with the unbeaten streak. Every season, you’re kind of going to have a little bit of a lull.“
“We had one bad week,” said senior forward Quincy Amarikwa, “but that wasn’t going to foretell the rest of our season. We can bounce back from adversity. It’s good for our team to get a taste of being on the ropes. To overcome that – that’s the character we need to have.”
The Aggies will find themselves on the ropes again. Given the team’s remaining schedule, that’s to be expected.
They’re ready for it.
“I think we’re in a good position,” Amarikwa said. “We’re doing what we need to do to win. All we want to do is keep our momentum going.“
UC Davis‘ challenge is to keep it going against its top threats to a Big West championship.
That objective may sway slightly from Shaffer’s present plan to remain in the conference’s top four, but winning a league title – and qualifying for another NCAA Tournament – becomes the next goal.
“We’re trying to win the conference,” Anibaba said. “If we win the conference, we get a good seed going into the NCAA Tournament. Home field advantage, first round off – all of it. We want that banner saying, ‘UC Davis won the Big West.‘”
ADAM LOBERSTEIN is still voting for Dylan Curtis to win the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award at soccer.seniorclassaward.com and by texting S3 to 839863. You should do the same. He can be reached at email@example.com.