Postseason elimination games provide some of the most intense moments players will face in their entire careers. Each moment literally defines a season. Undefeated teams and scrappy underdogs find themselves on equal footing in these situations despite vastly different regular season performances. Sometimes the better team wins, and sometimes the team that has faced more adversity and more tough losses has a better shot at dealing with this sort of pressure.
As the visiting Point Loma Nazarene University Sea Lions shut out the hosting UC San Diego Tritons 1–0 in the second round of the NCAA West Regional on Saturday, Nov. 23, a crowd of nearly 500 fans in attendance at RIMAC Field saw that storyline play out to a tee, as PLNU gave UCSD its second loss and ended both its season and the program’s stint in NCAA Division II.
The Tritons had a chance to score in the 31st minute with some solid momentum and with control of the ball just outside the box. But after junior midfielder Caitlin McCarthy’s shot was corralled and California Collegiate Athletic Association All-Second Team redshirt freshman midfielder Sophia Bruno and junior midfielder Michelle Baddour were removed from the game, PLNU regained control. After a save on the other end, the Sea Lions earned a free kick just in front of midfield at the 29th minute by senior midfielder Abbi Swanson, which was knocked in during the ensuing scrum by freshman defender Chase Bibbey.
After that goal, UCSD would continue to push, but turnovers and barely-missed touches kept the home team from putting the equalizer in the back of the net.
The speed of the fourth-seeded Sea Lions kept the top-seeded Tritons on their heels for much of the game. Streaking forwards and seemingly unbeatable defenders and midfielders kept the Tritons from making many consecutive touches, which led to very few real scoring chances. All of these small victories from PLNU combined to keep the Tritons scoreless for the third time this season.
The main problem was that the Tritons’ offense had little answer for the one-on-one defenders of the Sea Lions, who were really never beaten by UCSD forwards. PLNU’s own forwards, on the other hand, did a great job all afternoon in getting to the net and earning free kicks and corner kicks. This both limited UCSD’s time of possession and also got its fans into the game. For much of the game, it seemed the stands were packed with PLNU fans rather than UCSD faithful, which helped keep the Sea Lions comfortable during a tough final stretch of Triton offensive attacks.
Overall, UCSD’s backline did a solid job, as the only goal came off a broken play. Despite the speed and skill of the Sea Lions’ forwards, the defense never really faltered, and the main reason for this can be found in a trio of redshirt seniors whose careers ended at the final horn. Midfielder Natalie Saddic, defender Kelsey Kimball, and goalkeeper Angelica Ramos all have reached the ends of their careers at UCSD just as the program makes its transition into Division I. The trio each earned All-Conference First-Team honors in the CCAA, with Saddic being named Defensive Player of the Year and Ramos being named Goalkeeper of the Year.
While Kimball and Saddic made their biggest contributions on defense, their best efforts were still not enough to keep Ramos from making acrobatic diving saves throughout the entire match, including one full-extension sprawl with just a few seconds left to end her reign in the CCAA on a dominant note.
With the loss, the Tritons cede their historically perfect record against the crosstown rival Sea Lions, and also end UCSD’s chances of ending the Division-II era with a regional crown.
Even after the heartbreaking loss, the team’s senior leaders and head coach Kristin Jones were not ready to give up on each other. Instead, in their postgame press conference, they stressed love for one another that goes far beyond the bounds of four years playing soccer, and that’s exactly how it should be.