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Saturday, May 25, 2024

At Long Last: Aggies are Big West Conference Champs

UC Davis men’s soccer tops UC Santa Barbara to clinch NCAA berth

A record-setting, standing room-only capacity crowd at Aggie Soccer Field was treated to a game for the ages on Friday afternoon when the UC Davis men’s soccer team triumphed over UC Santa Barbara in the Big West conference championship match. The 2-0 victory earned the Aggies their first ever Big West title and a spot in the NCAA tournament for the first time in over a decade. 

“It’s been a long time coming for us,” said Head Coach Dwayne Shaffer, in his post-game interview with the Big West conference media. “We’ve been so close for several years. To finally just take it out of the committee’s hand, put it in our own hands with an opportunity to win a Big West championship here feels great. My student athletes have worked extremely hard to get back to three finals to get us an opportunity to get back to the NCAA tournament. So it feels extremely, extremely good.”

This was the first time the Aggies and the Gauchos had met in the postseason since 2015, when UCSB beat UC Davis 1-0 in the Big West semifinal round. But on Friday, the Aggies were more focused on rectifying the heartbreaking defeats they suffered in the conference finals at the end of the past two seasons. Face-to-face with a third straight chance to claim the Big West trophy, the Aggies did not blink. 

In an incredibly physical 90 minutes of soccer, the two sides totaled 36 fouls and seven yellow cards over the course of the afternoon. At the outset, the match swung back and forth. But as the first half went on, the Aggies began to take control, tallying eight shots with three on goal in the first frame, compared to Santa Barbara’s one. The game remained scoreless during the first 45 minutes of play, but with a raucous crowd behind them, the Aggies had plenty of confidence heading out of the halftime break. 

By the time the second half rolled around, the crowd at Aggie Soccer Field swelled from the additional fans that had trickled in during the opening period. Every seat was filled, forcing many in attendance to stand behind and in between the stands, as well as behind additional fences that the UC Davis athletics department set up behind the north goal at field level. UC Davis students and fans led cheers and brought a contagious and energetic atmosphere that built with every kick of the ball. 

The Aggies continued to apply intense pressure on the Gauchos defense, pushing the ball forward with a feverish pace. In the 55th minute, UC Davis finally found its golden moment.

On a give-and-go down the far sideline, sophomore forward Robert Mejia picked out a through-ball pass to sophomore midfielder Andy Velasquez, who took the ball into the Gaucho 18, fought off a defender on his back and placed the ball perfectly inside the far post with his right foot. The goal sent the crowd into a frenzy as the Aggies jumped in front 1-0. 

Velasquez’s sixth goal as an Aggie proved to be all UC Davis needed to take down the Gauchos. The stellar defense the Aggies had touted all season rose to the occasion, protecting the one-goal lead with every ounce it had. Santa Barbara registered just three shots following the score and only one was on target. The Aggie backline of juniors Nabi Kibunguchy and Jake Haupt, and sophomores Max Glasser and Sean Cooper frustrated UCSB by snuffing out any press forward during the Gauchos’ desperate attempts to equalize.    

With the game clock winding down, the crowd was on edge — it could feel that the Aggies were moments away from earning a victory they had fought so hard to achieve for so long. So to tear the lid off of the already boisterous stands, UC Davis made the most of a last-second Gaucho corner. With the UCSB goalkeeper in the UC Davis box for the set-piece, the Aggies turned away the cross, where the ball eventually fell to senior forward Adam Mickelson. 

Mickelson then sent a pass upfield to fellow senior forward Kristian Heptner, who sprinted down the pass and — with 15 seconds remaining — officially put the contest to bed with an empty net score. The crowd erupted, and just moments later, a mob of fans rushed the field to celebrate with UC Davis when time finally expired.

When the celebration finally subsided, the Aggies could finally begin to reflect on the emotional 2-0 win in front of their home crowd.

“I’m very excited,” Mickelson told Big West media following the match. “We’ve been trying to get [to the NCAA tournament] for the past two years. And then this year to win the Big West tournament, and on top of getting an NCAA berth, that’s huge and so exciting. It’ll give our team national exposure. It’ll give the players a chance to work for something that the team hasn’t been able to work for in the past decade or so. So I’m really excited.”

The pass to Heptner was Mickelson’s sixth assist of the season. The Missoula, Montana native leads the Aggies in that category, as well as in overall points, with 14. His play throughout all 19 games this season has drawn the praise of his head coach.

“I’m really happy for Adam,” Shaffer explained. “He’s worked really hard to get himself back at the elite level of a top-level, division-I striker. He’s been through some adversity with some injuries, but he’s worked hard to get himself back. Just the overall amount of work that he puts into a game and puts in for our team just makes us so much better. He’s a handful. He’s active, he’s quick, he’s fast and I think Adam will have some opportunities to play at the pro level out in front of him. And I certainly would have no problem letting a lot of coaches around the country know about Adam.”

The Aggies had the weekend to enjoy the historic feat, but when Monday rolled around it was back to business. That morning, the NCAA announced the 48-team field for its national division-I tournament, where the top 16 teams were awarded a first round bye. 

UC Davis is one of those top teams. The Aggies’ 13-4-2 record and conference tournament crown helped them earn a 14 seed in the bracket and a full week to prepare for their next contest. That also means that the Aggies will once again play in front of a home crowd; they’ll look to continue their dominant postseason run on Sunday, Nov. 24 when they host the winner of Louisville and South Florida. Kickoff for this second round matchup is set for 1 p.m. at Aggie Soccer Field. 

Written by: Frankie Veverka and Dominic Faria — sports@theaggie.org


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