Injuries Can’t Halt Unbeaten Streak

Junior midfielder Kelly Mayo is one of the few remaining healthy Tritons, and a consistent contributor, tallying three goals on the year. (Will Parson/Guardian)

The 2007 UCSD women’s soccer team rose to the upper echelons of collegiate soccer this year on the sheer talent of their starting lineup. Their normal recipe for first-half success will now have to be modified, with injuries mounting up on their starting squad. To maintain the status of their No. 4 national ranking in the nation throughout the second half of the season, the Tritons will have to depend on the depth and versatility of their bench.

On Oct. 6, the newly structured lineup was tested for the first time as UCSD traveled up north for a conference game against Humboldt State. The Tritons not only were putting forward an unusual front line, but they also had to do so after a 10-day break from play. The team did nothing but practice against themselves ever since a 2-1 victory against Cal State Los Angeles on Sept. 23.

The long hiatus proved immaterial, with UCSD posting a quality 2-0 win over in-conference rival the Lumberjacks. The team’s new makeup followed the patterns of the first-half team almost perfectly: scoring early and displaying a tight-fisted defense. Senior midfielder Ali Lai notched both of the Triton goals early in the first half, and UCSD’s impenetrable defense did the rest to secure yet another win and preserve the team’s unbeaten record at 9-0-1 (6-0-1 California Collegiate Athletic Association).

For Lai, scoring twice at the onset of the game was great, but it had its downsides.

“It definitely took a lot of pressure off the team early on,” Lai said. “Being up two goals so early in the game was crucial. At the same time it was almost a bad thing, too, because we got too comfortable and relaxed. The two goals made us feel like we had the game in the bag, which allowed Humboldt to actually get back in the game a bit.”

The problem of first-half scoring has haunted the Tritons all season. Granted, scoring too much in the first 90 minutes is a good sort of problem to have, but the Tritons realized the importance of holding the intensity for the whole game.

“We come out pretty hard every game and get some quick goals,” junior forward Natasha Belak-Berger said. “It seems like in the second half we just try to settle down and keep possession of the ball.”

Another bright spot in the win was the return of senior forward Kathy Sepulveda, who had been out since breaking her arm in the season’s opening match. Sepulveda’s return could not have come at a more opportune time: For a team succumbing to injuries, regaining their a veteran leader was unbelievably important.

“Having Kathy back, that was big,” head coach Brian McManus said. “It really helped to get a big weight off the front. It put a lot of pressure on the opposing defenders and also took some pressure off Lai up front. Belak-Berger was able to drop down between midfield and forward, which helped a lot.”

McManus reiterated the importance of avoiding injuries and picking up any slack that may develop.

“Trying to get healthy is going to be a definite key throughout the season,” McManus said. “We have had way too many injuries this year. We had to use 14 players against Humboldt.”

McManus also expressed concern over the loss of other players. Junior midfielder Amanda Esquivel will not be with the team next week as she is playing for the Costa Rican national team in the Olympic qualifiers.

While the losses are detrimental, McManus expects the return of injured sophomore midfielder Alexia Zatarain “soon enough.”

The players are equally aware of the challenges of adapting to the shifting lineup.

“We need to pull together as a team right now,” Lai said. “We’re short as a team, which means that the healthy players need to realize how crucial they are now. We don’t have a lot of bench players now, so everyone really has to step it up.”

This small but relatively significant challenge will be a good test for the 2007 squad. And if they can persevere through this stretch, it could bond them as a stronger, more resilient team. It is fitting that the Tritons, who have faced seemingly little opposition this season, will now have to face off against themselves as the most difficult challenge to date.