No. 2 UCSD Rallies to Stay Undefeated

    If the opening weeks of the 2007 season serve as any indication of future success, the UCSD women’s soccer team will be disappointed with any finish that does not improve upon its 2006 campaign. The Tritons, who last year made it to the NCAA quarterfinals, have kicked off this year meeting already high expectations, compiling a near-perfect 8-0-1 record, including their latest win: a 2-1 comeback thriller over Cal State Los Angeles on Sept. 23. Head coach Brian McManus’ squad was ranked as the pre-season’s sixth best team in the country, but its explosive start has bumped it up to No. 2 in the national poll.
    The immaculate start reflects the hard work put in by a team determined to move past the departure of last year’s graduating seniors. Four former senior starters, most notably All-American midfielders Megan Dickey and Kelley Cochran, left a hole in McManus’ attacking offense, but the returning players have more than filled that void, outscoring their opponents 21-4 over the first nine games.
    The brilliant beginning, according to junior forward Natasha Belak-Berger, is boosting the team’s morale and helping push it toward its goals.
    “It gives us a lot of confidence in our team,” Belak-Berger said. “We have a lot of talent on this team and starting 7-0 proves that to ourselves. Obviously we want to go out and win every game, but our main goal is to make it to the NCAA finals, all while playing good soccer and having fun. Last year we made it to the round of eight and this year we want to go farther.”
    UCSD opened the season on Aug. 25 with a 3-1 win over the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and continued its perfect preseason with two more wins against Hawaii Pacific University and Brigham Young University at Hawaii. With three impressive games under their belt, the Tritons were well prepared for their California Collegiate Athletic Association league opener versus Cal State San Bernardino. The match proved to be more difficult than previous games, but the resilient team edged out a 2-1 win. Belak-Berger started the 2007 CCAA season in style, scoring in the 15th minute of play. After another first-half goal by junior midfielder Kelly Mayo, the Cal State San Bernardino Coyotes went on the offensive, out-shooting the Tritons 7-2 over the final 45 minutes, but junior keeper Jessica McGovern made four fantastic saves late in the game to seal the victory.
    A similar formula of timely goal scoring and stingy defense was employed over the subsequent games, leading to three more conference wins. In those three games the Tritons scored eight goals while allowing only one.
    The only possible blemish of the young season would be a 0-0 tie against Cal State Dominguez Hills. The Tritons battled the Toros through a tense 90 minutes of regulation but were unable to get the game-winning goal across, missing on all six shots before overtime. A pair of overtime periods yielded nothing more than great defense and close calls for the Tritons, who were still able to maintain their first place position in the CCAA South Division with a leading 13 points.
    The Tritons realize that they cannot take any game for granted and must not let their great start trick them into a false sense of security. The gapping goal differential indicates pure supremacy, but the stat is more indicative of their first-half play than anything else. UCSD has been fantastic at scoring early in all of its games but has been unable to continue that trend in the final half. The 8-0-1 record is another testament to the stoppers on defense, but for the Tritons to reclaim the national championship the team has chased for the last five seasons, they must be able to distance themselves from their opponents by putting the game out of reach in the second half.
    Sophomore midfielder Alexia Zatarain recognized the tendency toward better first-half play, put points out that the Tritons have already started to make the necessary adjustments.
    “We have been struggling in the second half,” Zatarain said. “Maybe it’s because we scored so much in the first that we came out a little slower later on. In the Dominguez game our second half was a million times better than our first, and our coaches were really happy with our play.”
    The abundance of goals being scored by the Tritons seems almost unnecessary with the unrelenting effort that the keeper McGovern is putting forth. She has played every minute of every game while saving 20 shots and posting a goals-against average of a mere 0.36 on the season.
    While the national poll did not consider UCSD worthy of the top ranking, the coaches within the CCAA predicted the Tritons to finish first in conference in the preseason coaches’ poll. The respect shown by the opposing coaches reflects just how much UCSD has dominated its own conference in recent years.
    Last year’s CCAA Championship was the team’s sixth overall and all signs point to the 2007 team adding a seventh. Although the 2006 team compiled an outstanding 20-2-2 record (13-2-1 CCAA) and made a national quarterfinal appearance, this year’s team returns with 15 letter winners and six starters, including All-CCAA senior midfielder Caitlin Ryan, senior forward Kathy Sepulveda and junior midfielder Amanda Esquivel.
    Although the Tritons’ dominance over their conference rivals has not created many heated rivalries, the matches against Cal Poly Pomona and Cal State San Bernardino always provide a challenge.
    “Every game is really important in conference, but the Pomona and San Bernardino games always are exciting” Belak-Berger said. “It seems like all the other teams always try and bring their ‘A’ game when they play us.”
    Entering his 21st year of coaching at UCSD, McManus is the paragon of consistency. McManus, who arrived in La Jolla in 1986 as an assistant coach, has become one of the most successful and well-respected coaches in all of collegiate soccer.
    “Playing for coach McManus is really great,” Zatarain said. “He’s won so many national championships it really motivates us to want to win for him. He’s great at pushing us and making us want to win.”
    His career winning percentage is the third best in NCAA women’s soccer history and he recently won his 350th game with a shutout victory over San Francisco State. After dominating D-III soccer, McManus’ team moved up a division in 2000 and, under his guidance, immediately cemented UCSD’s place among the nation’s best by winning back-to-back national championships.

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