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Monday, October 18, 2021

UC Davis men’s soccer battle through an up-and-down start to season

Aggies still seeking first conference title in program history

Although the past few seasons have not ended exactly how the program would have preferred, the UC Davis men’s soccer team has displayed that it’s certainly capable of competing for a Big West conference title. 

In each of the past two seasons, the Aggies fell just short of capturing a conference title and advancing to the NCAA national tournament. In 2017, the Aggies battled Cal State Fullerton in a scoreless match until they were defeated by the Titans in penalties on UC Davis’ home turf.

Last year ended in similar heartbreak, as the Aggies were again forced into a penalty shootout after both teams failed to score. This time, it was UC Riverside who slipped by UC Davis to claim the Big Sky conference crown. 

Nevertheless, these two seasons have given the program a tremendous amount of confidence, even if it wasn’t the preferred way to go out. The strong postseason runs have been fueled in large part by younger players, namely junior defensive midfielder Nabi Kibunguchy, sophomore forward Robert Mejia, sophomore defender Max Glasser and junior defender Jake Haupt. These players were integral in the Aggies’ hot start to the 2019 season, going undefeated at 3-0-1 in the initial four games. 

The official regular season kicked off in the upper midwest, playing against University of Wisconsin and Marquette. Wisconsin had received a handful of national preseason ranking votes, making for what appeared to be a tough test to start the season for UC Davis. But it was the Aggies that looked like a nationally-merited team, upending the Badgers 2-0 with goals from Mejia and sophomore midfielder Any Velasquez. After a day of rest, the Aggies then tied  Marquette after two scoreless overtime periods in a grueling, defensive standoff. 

The Aggies were thrilled to then return home from their first away stint of many this year undefeated, and turned to their first home match of the season against Cal State Bakersfield. 

The game against Bakersfield featured redshirt freshman forward Wumi Aladetimi scoring the game-winning goal in his first-ever regular season cap. The Toronto native scored just as the second half began in the 47th minute, setting up the defense to close the game. Anchored by Kibunguchy and senior goalkeeper Wallis Lapsley, the defense executed to perfection, securing the Aggies’ first home victory of the season. 

After a day of rest came a game against the Air Force Academy, at the time ranked 25th nationally. This was the second and final game of the Aggies’ “Copa de Causeway” miniseries. This game’s importance increased because of the Air Force’s ranking and because the Aggies’ next eight games would all be away. Winning one before the long away streak would give the team momentum heading into what could be, and what has turned out to be, a brutal month. 

The Aggies were able to take care of business quite handily, dominating the Air Force from start to finish. The nationally ranked side was only able to get off eight shots in the entire game, compared to the Aggies 24, two of which found the back of the net from Velasquez and redshirt freshman defensive midfielder Whalen Shinn. Lapsley turned in a clean sheet yet again, and was named to his third career Big West Defensive Player of the Week honors for his stellar goalkeeping throughout the two Copa de Causeway games. The 2-0 victory was also the first time UC Davis had defeated a nationally ranked team at home since 2015. 

But since starting undefeated through the first quarter of their season, the Aggies have struggled on the road. 

Over the course of the last two weeks, UC Davis played out half of its eight game road stint, first travelling down to Southern California to play against the University of San Diego and Loyola Marymount University, barely dropping both games by a score of 1-0. In the first game against San Diego, both teams entered the game lossless and also receiving votes for the national poll. In the end, it was San Diego that was able to squeeze in a goal in the 74th minute, edging out the Aggies under the national spotlight. Davis fell under a similar fate to LMU just two days later. 

On Sept. 19, the Aggies rolled into Stockton for a tough game against the University of the Pacific. UC Davis was never truly able to get anything going, eventually dropping the game 2-0. A bright spot in the afternoon, however, was the debut for sophomore goalkeeper Derrek Chan, who entered the match in the 75th minute. Much of the success of this current group can be attributed to excellent goalkeeper play, carving out a big role for Chan to fill once Lapslie graduates after this year.

After the three game slide, UC Davis was finally able to regain the form it had found in its first four matches on Saturday with a 3-1 victory over San Jose State. The Aggies trailed 1-0 early in the second half, but responded with back-to-back goals from sophomore forward Jye Citizen and senior forward Adam Mickelson. A San Jose State own goal later in the contest would cement the UC Davis victory and giving the Aggies a 4-3-1 record entering the second half of the road trip.

After matches at Saint Mary’s, Oregon State and Sacramento State, the team will conclude the long road journey by opening up Big West conference play at Cal Poly. The Aggies look to improve from last year’s conference record of 3-3-1, and this year’s team has proven they have the depth and experience to compete with the nation’s best. Perhaps these last few away games will allow the team to do some fine-tuning before a deep end of the year run. 

Written by: AJ Seymour — sports@theaggie.org

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