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Friday, April 12, 2024

UC Davis men’s soccer team gets first home conference game win against UC Irvine

Zack Lillington secures the Aggies’ win with last-minute goal

By MARLON ROLON — sports@theaggie.org


First-year midfielder Zack Lillington came off the bench to score the game-winner in the 81st minute, helping UC Davis get their first Big West Conference win of the season on Oct. 5 at Aggie Soccer Field. 

This game was special for the UC Davis home crowd, as Robert Mejia, who played the striker position for the Aggies from 2017-2021, returned as a grad student — this time playing for UC Irvine. Mejia helped UC Davis win the Big West Championship and reach the NCAA tournament in 2019. 

Seeing him play for a Big West rival was a sight most Davis fans never thought they would see; however, that did not stop them from cheering on the former Aggie. Mejia was integral to many special moments for the team in recent years — last season he scored the game-winner against Sacramento State, helping UC Davis clinch a spot in the Big West Tournament. In the first round of the tournament, Mejia scored two goals against CSU Bakersfield and helped the Aggies advance to the semi-finals, where they lost 1-0 against UC Santa Barbara in double overtime. 

Mejia embraced the cheers from the Davis crowd, but his presence on the pitch wasn’t enough to match the UC Davis defense, who locked out the Anteaters’ offense for the entire 90 minutes of play. 

The Aggies created scoring opportunities for the majority of the contest but had trouble finishing — which has been a trend this season. This was evident in the eighth minute of the first half when fourth-year midfielder Andy Velasquez’s first shot of the game went wide near the left post. Again, in the 23rd minute, Velasquez perfectly crossed the ball into the small box to third-year striker Ethan Hoard, who headed the ball right to the goalkeeper in what appeared to be a sure goal. In 11 games played, Hoard is in second with 32 shots in the Big West; however, in 682 minutes played, Hoard has scored just one goal. 

In what appeared to be a goal-scoring play in the 32nd minute, Anteaters’ second-year midfielder Francesco Montanile capitalized on a mistake from the Aggies’ defense and dribbled the ball into the box, where he shot — but Aggie goalkeeper Charles Janssen got a hand on it, forcing the ball to bounce off the left post. 

Late in the first half, both offenses appeared stalled, but in the 45th minute, UC Davis had, and wasted, their best scoring opportunity of the half. The play came from a corner kick, as first-year midfielder Jason Hsu was left unmarked. He headed the ball, but with very little force, and the ball bounced right into the hands of UC Irvine’s goalkeeper. The first half ended 0-0 with the Aggies taking four shots compared to the Anteaters’ three. 

The second half started with UC Davis aggressively pushing the ball down the field. Lillington took a shot in the 51st minute off of a pass from third-year midfielder Ryan Dieter, but the ball flew over the crossbar. 

Three minutes later, the Aggies wasted another opportunity; this time Hoard won the ball through his physicality and dribbled past a defender, only to have his shot blocked by the goalkeeper in a one-on-one situation. 

The Anteaters’ offense disappeared at this point in the game. In the 78th minute, the Aggies would once again threaten the opposing defense with an aerial attack  — the ball ricocheted off Lillington’s head and found Hoard, who was in scoring position inside the small box but kicked the ball with too much force over the crossbar. Hoard’s frustration over the missed opportunity was evident; he leads the Big West with seven shots hitting the goal post.

However, UC Davis’ luck changed in the 81st minute. Dieter crossed the ball from the left side to Lillington, who headed the ball to the right post. The ball bounced off the post back to Lillington, who brilliantly kicked the ball into the net — giving the Aggies a 1-0 lead.

The goal was Lillington’s second goal of the season, and the first-year is now tied with first-year striker Casen Goodman as the leading scorer of the team with two goals apiece. Five of the nine goals scored for the Aggies have been by first-years. UC Davis currently ranks ninth out of 10 teams in the Big West with the least amount of goals scored (eight).

After the goal, UC Irvine became desperate, looking to tie up the game with furious attacks. In the 85th minute, the Anteaters crossed the ball into the goalkeeper’s area, rolling past the Aggies’ defense. Montanile made contact but the ball bounced off first-year defender Luke Goodman and goalkeeper Janssen. 

The final whistle blew and UC Davis claimed their first win in conference play. The Aggies’ record has improved to 2-6-3 overall and 1-1-1 in the conference. UC Davis also broke a five-year winless drought against UC Irvine, beating the Anteaters for the first time since 2017. With the win, UC Davis moved up to fifth place in the Big West standings. 

Lillington finished the game with two shots and a goal, while Dieter finished with one assist and Hoard finished with three shots, two of which were on target. 

Despite the win, the Aggies’ offense is still struggling to put the ball in the back of the net and the team’s defense ranks fifth in goals allowed (15) in 11 games played. Defense keeps the Aggies in the game, but defense alone cannot win them games. 

Though they are experiencing some growing pains, the Aggies are keeping up with the rest of the Big West. With six games left in the season, UC Davis can still secure a spot in the Big West tournament. 

On Oct. 8, UC Davis traveled to Northridge where they beat the Matadors 1-0. On Wednesday, Oct. 12, they returned home to face CSU Bakersfield, and on Saturday, Oct. 15, they’ll host Cal State Fullerton at Aggie Soccer Field.


Written by: Marlon Rolon — sports@theaggie.org