It was the last game of the regular season and the standings were tighter than airport security. The Matadors knew someone had to be out. They knew it could be them. They even knew that, at home, against the No. 10 team in nation, they were favorites for the fall.
What they didn’t know is that it would be this cruel.
UC Irvine’s Irving Garcia took a ball from the sideline at midfield with less than three minutes to play in regulation and juked all Matador who crossed path on his way to the heart of goalkeeper Kevin Guppy’s box from where he set up Carlos Aguilar from three yards out for the 2-1 game-winner Saturday afternoon at Matador Field.
The win gave the Anteaters the Big West Conference championship. It gave the Matadors (8-7-4. 4-3-3 Big West) the boot out of the conference tournament.
CSUN, who would have been the league champ had it won – that’s how close things were – was eliminated in the same fashion in which it lived the season: undermanned and fighting. The Matadors got down 1-0 early in the second half, then suffered the loss of defender Jeremy Hohn. Hohn received a red card in the 60th minute after CSUN began to lose its head due to frustration.
‘I was disappointed with the red card of course,’ said Matador Head Coach Terry Davila. ‘It was a deserved red card. Irvine battled. We got down to 10 men, but we got the best of the game. We started creating opportunities, getting behind them.’
Davila credited the Anteaters (12-1-6, 5-1-4) for keeping their composure. With less than 30 minutes left to play, the coach tried to bring that back into his team. After Matador Nicholas Hamilton got hurt blocking an Anteater shot with his face, there was a time stoppage. Davila took advantage of it to gather his troops and deliver the message. ‘Let’s go fellows, we’re all right,’ he said.
And the fellows listened. The Matadors calmed down and began to put pressure on the UC Irvine end of the field – something they hadn’t accomplished all game long. Cameron Sims had back-to-back chances in the 70th minute, but his shots weren’t potent enough to beat goalie Andrew Fontain. Camilo Rojas had better fortune. In the 71st minute, the forward finally made Matador Field get on its feet to celebrate – for one last time in 2008. A free kick-pass from Sunghyun Kim found Rojas all alone inside the box and the sophomore wouldn’t waste the chance.
The momentary tie had CSUN in the postseason. But they weren’t satisfied.
‘We were going for the win. We had to get the win,’ said senior defender Ben Cox, who played his last game as a Matador. ‘We didn’t want to go to overtime, especially with 10 men. We wanted to finish it in regulation.’
The Matadors had chances to do so. Momentum was up in the air. CSUN and the Anteaters traded attacks, but UCI was closer. Anteater midfielder Matt Murphy had the last of his five shots on goal saved by Guppy with six minutes left. Guppy, a senior, stood tall in his last game at CSUN. He had nine saves in the match. He couldn’t stop the last shot of the game, though.
No one could.
‘(Garcia) beat four players,’ said Davila of the heartbreaking goal that eliminated the Matadors. ‘It’s not like he was one-on-one. He beat four players, including the keeper. It wasn’t like we were totally out of balance. He made a great play. It was a great individual effort.’
When asked about the play, Garcia himself said he ‘didn’t know how he did it.’ Numerous Matadors, incredulous to what just had taken place, not wanting to accept that they weren’t going to be in the postseason, fell to the ground and covered their faces in disappointment.
Two minutes later, once the game was over and the Anteaters ran onto the field to celebrate, there was more of the same. Defender Dylan Riley had his head on the ground as an assistant coach came over to try to console him. Cox couldn’t hide the pain if he tried. It was all over his face in the form of red eyes. Kim sat alone on the bench with his head down.
‘It was a tight year in the league,’ said Cox. ‘If we would have won we would have been first place, if we lost’hellip; it’s rough to go out with a loss, rough to go out with 10 men. It’s jut tough’hellip;’
In a league where four points separated the Big West champion from the fifth-place team, the Matadors, tough is an understatement. But CSUN had its chance. They were dominated in the first half. They lost their heads in the second after Matt Murphy opened the scoring and got down to 10 men. That’s when they decided to wake up. In a game of such magnitude, that was too late.
‘If you would have told me that, with all these injuries,’ said Davila, whose team lost multiple starters throughout 2008. ‘That we would have had an opportunity to win the Big West championship in an elimination game with UC Irvine, the No. 10 team in the nation, I would take it.’