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Davis, California

Monday, April 15, 2024

Aggies ousted from NCAA tournament

Louisville tops UC Davis men’s soccer in front of record crowd at Aggie Soccer Field

A dominant season for the UC Davis men’s soccer team reached its abrupt, heartbreaking conclusion on Sunday afternoon at Aggie Soccer Field, when the Louisville Cardinals slipped by the Aggies 1-0 in the second round of the NCAA tournament. 

In front of a crowd of about 1,700, the 14th-seeded Aggies were upset by the visiting Cardinals in what was a frustrating game for the UC Davis side. The Aggies outshot Louisville 18-5 on the afternoon and controlled the majority of the match, but all it took was one devastating Cardinals counterattack for the visitors to score, ending UC Davis’ hopes of advancing any further in the national tournament.

“I felt like we played well,” said UC Davis Head Coach Dwayne Shaffer about his team following the game. “In the first half, we created some great opportunities. There are two that stick out in my mind. Unfortunately, we just didn’t shoot the ball. We allowed their defense to recover. But overall, I thought my team played well. I don’t think we played as well as we have in the past four games, but you gotta give some credit to Louisville. They dropped in a very low block and defended in their half for the majority of the game. I thought we broke them down enough times, but we unfortunately just didn’t put the ball in the back of the net.”

Thanks to a 13-4-2 record and a Big West Conference championship win, the Aggies were awarded a first-round bye and enjoyed a full week of preparation for Sunday’s contest. The lower-seeded Cardinals, on the other hand, hosted their first-round game on Thursday evening, where they cruised past the visiting University of South Florida side by a score of 4-1 to secure their spot in the second-round.

But whatever momentum Louisville may have captured in Thursday’s victory was repelled by the Aggies from the outset of Sunday’s match. It looked as if UC Davis had picked up exactly where it left off when it defeated UC Santa Barbara to claim the conference crown on the same pitch just nine days prior. The Aggies played with all the confidence of a highly-ranked home side and were supported by a friendly, sold-out crowd. 

UC Davis wasted little time in eliciting cheers from the fans in attendance, as senior forward Adam Mickelson threatened a first goal in the 5th minute on a through ball that led him racing behind the Cardinals back line. But before he could get a clean shot off, the Louisville defense did just enough to recover and snuff out the attack.

In the 11th minute, freshman midfielder Max Arfsten fired off the first shot of the contest: an attempt on goal that was saved by Louisville goalkeeper Jake Gelnovatch. The Aggies did not let up on their offensive pressure, and, just a few minutes later, forced a turnover in the Louisville defensive third. Arfsten again tried to put the Aggies in front, but this time his shot flew just wide of the net. 

In what was already turning into a fairly confrontational match, Louisville eventually began to settle into the contest, but not before another quality UC Davis scoring chance was thwarted by the Cardinals. 

Off of an Aggie corner in the 28th minute, junior defender Nabi Kibunguchy sent in a half-volley shot to the net that forced a diving save from Gelnovatch and kept things level. This was the second of UC Davis’ six first-half shots that were on target, compared to none of the Cardinals’ three. In addition, a total of 11 fouls and three yellow cards were awarded in the first 45 minutes alone, setting the tone for what was to continue after the halftime break.

 Unwavered, the Aggies were determined to start the final frame on the right foot — and that foot belonged to senior forward Kristian Heptner. The West Sacramento-native fought to get on the end of a cross from the right side and then hammered the ball toward the net, but once again Gelnovatch made a spectacular save and shut the door on another UC Davis scoring opportunity less than a minute after the second half kicked off.

 “It’s definitely a huge motivator,” Mickelson said, referencing how his team was able to test the Louisville goalkeeper throughout the match. “If we can get shots on goal and make the keeper work, we believe at least we can put away chances throughout the game. Today, they just didn’t fall for us.”

Even over the next 15 minutes of the game, the Aggies were still motivated to break the deadlock. They recorded five more shots in that span — one of which came on a close-range header that bounced begrudgingly over the left side of the crossbar. But it was in the Aggies’ eagerness to press forward that the Cardinals ultimately found the chance to take the lead.

After a Mickelson shot was saved on one end, in the blink of an eye the ball was sent hurling down the opposite end of the pitch to the feet of a sprinting Louisville forward, Izaiah Jennings. With most of the Aggies still lingering in the attacking third, Jennings cut through the UC Davis defense and finished the ball past senior goalkeeper Wallis Lapsley into the bottom left of the net. It was Louisville’s first and only shot on goal of the afternoon, but one that made all the difference.

After the crowd-silencing score, the Cardinals immediately shifted to a defensive approach in an effort to hold on to their one-goal lead. Louisville packed 10 players into their defensive half, which made it incredibly difficult for the Aggies to push the ball forward without fierce resistance. 

“We had pretty good control of the game,” said Mickelson. “We were creating a lot of chances, they didn’t create much of anything up until the goal. I thought we played really well today, and then once they scored, it’s hard to break down any team that sits back like that. They did a good job of it — I mean, I’m sure we would have done the same thing had we scored a goal. I thought we played really well all the way up until that point and even through the end of the game. We just couldn’t put one away.”

 In the final 28 minutes after the Louisville goal, UC Davis still managed to get off six more shots, but only a couple of those were even on target. 

“We have all that implemented in our system of play,” Shaffer said, referring to his team’s action-plan when trailing. “We talk about it, we train it and hopefully we don’t have to use it too often — that sort of system that we go to when we’re down. But I thought we did well. We went to it and we created a lot of havoc, but we just unfortunately just didn’t score the goal.”

Even as precious time continued to slip away from the Aggies, they never showed signs of giving in. But in the end, UC Davis could not find that crucial weakness in the fortress of defenders entrenched in the Louisville side of the pitch. The visitors did literally just enough to survive and advance, while handing UC Davis its first home loss of the year in the process. 

The Aggies were the better side in nearly all facets of the game on Sunday, but in soccer the better side doesn’t always walk away with a victory. It obviously wasn’t the result that UC Davis was hoping for, but in the minds of those who were a part of the program this season, there is still plenty to be proud of.  

“Obviously, it’s disappointing right now to have it end, but it’s been an incredible year for us,” Lapsley said. “[We’ve had] a lot of success. A lot of success that’s a product of stuff that we’ve worked really hard on the last few years. The foundation that myself and Adam [Mickelson] and the rest of our senior class have laid, and then classes before us. A lot of guys walked in the program so we could run this year, so respect to them and respect to everybody who has been a part of us the last five years, because I think that’s been a big part of what we’ve been able to do.”

The 2019 campaign was no doubt fruitful for UC Davis. The Aggies tied the program division-I record for single-season wins with 13, earned the program’s first ever Big West tournament title and secured the program’s third division-I NCAA tournament appearance. The defense was menacing, allowing a program record of 13 goals against and contributing to nine clean sheets on the year. 

The team’s five seniors — Lapsley, Mickelson, Heptner and midfielders Dylan Wood and Marte Formico — were an instrumental part of this season’s success, according to Shaffer.

“It’s been a great run with the senior group,” Shaffer said. “Over the last three years they’ve won 35 games. Over the last four seasons, we’ve been the winningest team in the Big West conference during their career. So it’s been a great ride. The student athletes before them kind of laid the groundwork for these guys, but they’ve raised it to another level. They’re definitely going to be missed — all five of the seniors in the group have been outstanding. Not only outstanding soccer players, but really cool people. Fun to work with every day.

“Today didn’t go our way, but last week went our way and we won a Big West tournament championship — and 13 wins on the season. So they’ve got a lot to be proud of and they can walk away from the program knowing that they’ve raised the bar back to where we were ten years ago. And hopefully from this day forward, all these student athletes that join our program are going to look up to these guys and try to achieve what they have.”

One of those players that will be looked up to by the next generations of Aggies will be Lapsley, who became the second Aggie in program history to be awarded Big West Goalkeeper of the Year. Following the loss, the man who holds the program record for career shutouts thanked the entire UC Davis community for supporting the team through it all. 

“The energy, especially these last couple weeks, has been really great,” Lapsley said. “And hopefully that’s a standard that can be set and can be built on — not only for our sport, but for all UC Davis sports. Because there’s a lot of incredible student athletes, and I think sometimes they’re overlooked and I think sometimes we take each other for granted — ‘us’ being other student athletes around campus. It felt great to be supported today and all year long, so hopefully that can continue [not only] for UC Davis men’s soccer and UC Davis women’s soccer, but for all UC Davis athletics teams going forward.”

The future of the program is still as bright as ever. Key contributors from all across the lineup and from several classes of eligibility will likely be returning for the Aggies next season and beyond. That list includes current juniors like Kibunguchy and fellow defender Jake Haupt, sophomores Robert Mejia, Andy Velasquez, Max Glasser, Emmanuel Doherty and a true freshman in Arfsten. Come next fall, these will be the experienced pieces that UC Davis can lean on to continue the program’s winning ways.

Written by: Dominic Faria — sports@theaggie.org


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