This time last season, Sule Anibaba was in tears, as the UC Davis men’s soccer team had just been selected for the NCAA Tournament in its first Division I season.
“That was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had,” Anibaba said. “We didn’t really know what was going to happen.… Hearing our name on ESPNews – I just remember crying.“
That was then.
This is now.
No longer are the Aggies content with a berth in the national tournament. Now, they have their sights on winning it.
“We’ll get the call, we’ll be happy – that’ll last probably 24 hours, and then it’ll be done,” Anibaba said. “We were so excited about making it last year that it didn’t really hit us until the day before we played Berkeley. The shock was in us until we played them.“
The shock of making the big dance wore off and disappointment set in as California knocked the upstart Aggies out of the tournament with a 1-0 overtime victory last season.
There will be no such shock this time around.
“We’ve been here before,” Anibaba said. “We have nine seniors. We know what it takes to win.“
UC Davis (12-4-4, 4-2-4 Big West Conference) is the No. 12 team in the nation, having been ranked in the top 15 since early October.
The Aggies also sit at No. 15 in Rating Percentage Index (RPI), which basically means they’ve been playing a bunch of really, really good teams – and beating them.
Considering 48 teams will be picked for the tournament, UC Davis knows it’s essentially a lock to make the tournament heading into today’s selection show, which will air at 3 p.m. on ESPNews.
“If we’re selected to the NCAA Tournament, it’ll be well deserved,” head coach Dwayne Shaffer said. “We have only lost four games on the season and have played quality opponents.… We have wins over Cal Poly, Santa Barbara, Michigan State – our record against teams being considered for the tournament is really good.“
That’s why this year is different.
“I’m just thinking about who we’re playing, where we’re playing this time,” Anibaba said. “We’re one of the top teams in the nation. We’re not freaking out about getting in anymore. Now, it’s about playing.“
The Aggies consider themselves a contender for a first-round bye, meaning they’d be one of the tournament’s top 16 seeds.
If they don’t pick up a bye, they expect a home game at Aggie Soccer Stadium in the first round.
“Based on what we’ve done, the teams we’ve beat – we should have home field in the first round,” Anibaba said. “Anything less would be a slap in the face.“
UC Davis knows it can do damage regardless of where it’s seeded.
“If we get a first round bye, that would be amazing,” Anibaba said. “If we don’t, that’s fine. If we have to travel, so what?”
To have success in the tournament, the Aggies will have to start finding the back of the net earlier in games.
The team has surrendered the first goal in seven straight contests, and is 1-3-3 over that stretch. UC Davis is 10-1-1 when it scores first.
“Obviously, you have to score to win,” Shaffer said. “Any time you can score the first goal, it makes it easier.“
Anibaba said finding motivation to score that first goal to break out of UC Davis‘ current skid shouldn’t be difficult given the NCAA Tournament setting.
“With the playoffs, it’s easy,” he said. “You have one shot.… On any given day, no matter how good you are, if you don’t bring it that day you’re not going to win. Every team that’s seen us play – we can beat any team in the nation.“
ADAM LOBERSTEIN wants you to know the men’s soccer team will be at The Graduate today at 3 p.m. for the selection show. We’ll see you there. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.