Aggies dominate Fullerton in Big West semifinal

Aggies dominate Fullerton in Big West semifinal

Photo Credits: JUSTIN HAN / AGGIE. Midfielder Max Arfsten (11) celebrates with his teammates after scoring the first goal for the Aggies against the Cal State Fullerton Titans during the Big West Tournament semifinal on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019 at Aggie Field.

UC Davis men’s soccer advances to third straight conference final game

To say the Aggies were ready for their first postseason game would be an understatement. The UC Davis men’s soccer team played arguably its most complete game of the year on Saturday, completely overpowering the visiting Cal State Fullerton Titans from start to finish in a 2-0 victory. The win sends the Aggies to a third straight appearance in the Big West conference tournament final, where UC Davis will host UC Santa Barbara on Friday, Nov. 15.

Perhaps a full week of rest was just what the Aggies needed following a grueling regular season in which UC Davis managed to amass 11 wins and clinch the top spot in the Big West. The Titans, on the other hand, finished fifth in the table and had to get past a quarterfinal matchup at Cal Poly on Nov. 6 to advance to Saturday’s semifinal. 

Fullerton blanked the Mustangs 2-0 to capture its fourth victory in five games heading into the showdown at UC Davis. The only loss in that stretch was at the hands of the Aggies, when UC Davis took down the Titans 2-1 in overtime. Given the competitive nature of this previous meeting, many expected Saturday’s rematch to be another nail-biter. But UC Davis made sure that there would be little drama this time around.

In front of a lively crowd at Aggie Soccer Field on Saturday, the Aggies wasted little time to impose their will on the visiting Titans. Senior forward Adam Mickelson recorded the game’s first shot in the fourth minute, testing the Titans with a low-driven attempt that was blocked by Fullerton goalkeeper, Paul-Andre Guerin. Just over a minute later, sophomore midfielder Emmanuel Doherty curled in a cross from the right side that met senior forward Kristian Heptner, whose header forced a diving save from Guerin. 

These first five minutes were an accurate indication of what was to unfold over the course of the entire match, as the Aggies would outshoot the Titans 25-4 when it was all said and done. Fourteen of those 25 shots were on target, giving Guerin a workout he likely didn’t want. 

On just their fifth shot of the game, the Aggies found the back of the net. In the game’s 15th minute, Heptner lofted a high, arching ball into the penalty area, where junior defender Jake Haupt was able to head the ball toward the back post. Waiting there was freshman midfielder Max Arfsten, who could not have picked a better time to head the ball in and record his first goal as an Aggie.

Haupt, who assisted on both of the Aggie goals on Saturday, complimented his teammates for being in the right places.

“First of all on the set piece — being able to flick that ball on — it was a great [ball] from Kristian,” Haupt said. “And then trusting that one of my guys is going to get on the back post to get that in the net with Max [Arfsten] — and he did a great job with that.”

The early breakthrough further fueled UC Davis’ momentum and gave the Aggie defense an opportunity to truly settle into the ballgame. The Aggie backline was quite simply impenetrable. Aided by a midfield that constantly kept the pressure on the Titans, the UC Davis defense snuffed out any and all forward advancements by Fullerton. Senior goalkeeper Wallis Lapsley only needed to make two saves the entire afternoon.

“It’s a veteran group in our defense, led by Wallis Lapsely and then Jake Haupt, […] Nabi Kibunguchy and Marte Formico,” said head coach Dwayne Shaffer. “That kind of group in our defensive side of it, they’ve been great leaders.” 

Everything was clicking for UC Davis at the halftime break. And just over 10 minutes into the second frame, the Aggies broke through for the second time.

The aggressive, high-press play style of the Aggies paid off enormously, as Haupt was able to force a turnover in the Titan third and send a pass toward goal to a streaking Mickelson. Even with Guerin charging at him, Mickelson calmly lifted the ball over the keeper and into the back of the net to double the UC Davis lead.

“I knew Adam was going to make that run,” Haupt explained. “And I knew I could play a good ball over the top and I know he’s going to finish that every time.”

Instead of resting on the two goal lead, the Aggies doubled down, turning up the pressure on an increasingly desperate Titans team and recording 12 more shots before time expired. 

The 2-0 victory was the eighth time this year that UC Davis had held its opponent scoreless. It was certainly a performance that the Aggies could feel confident about heading into Friday’s showdown with the team that finished just behind them in the Big West standings: the Gauchos. 

UC Santa Barbara enters the Big West final with a regular season record of 12-3-4 and is the highest scoring team in the conference. The Gauchos’ 13 goals in their seven conference games ranks first among among all Big West teams, and their three goals allowed in conference play ties them with UC Davis for the fewest in the Big West. The Aggies and the Gauchos squared off in Davis back on Oct. 23 when the teams drew to a 1-1 tie. 

But regardless of what team they will be facing this Friday, the Aggies will be playing determined to reverse two years of heartbreak. In each of the previous two title games, UC Davis was outlasted in penalty kicks after grinding through a scoreless contest. Now, with a third opportunity to finally win the Big West championship game and punch their ticket to the NCAA tournament, the Aggies will have to perform when it matters most. 

“You know, penalties are — they can go any way,” Shaffer explained. “And unfortunately they haven’t gone our way in the final the last two years. But we didn’t talk about it. We trained a little bit on penalty kicks, but if we take care of our own performance, and we focus on ourselves and our own performance, hopefully the games won’t go that far.”

The Big West final is set to get underway at 2 p.m. at Aggie Soccer Field on Friday.

Written by: Dominic Faria — sports@theaggie.org