Saturday marked the third straight year Cal State Fullerton men’s soccer appeared in the Big West Tournament championship game. The Titans were looking to become the first team in the history of the Big West to win the championship three years in a row. The CSU Northridge Matadors, however, denied Fullerton its spot in the record books, defeating the Titans 2-1 in double overtime to capture their first championship since 2012.
At the end of the match, two ends of overwhelming emotion became apparent on the field. Northridge players immediately removed their shirts and sprinted to the sidelines to celebrate with the home crowd while the Fullerton players fell to their knees in defeat.
“I’m really proud of our team because we overcame a lot of adversity and injuries this year. We were right there at the end and we had chances to finish this game.” said Head Coach George Kuntz in a press release. “Overall, it was an outstanding year because to get to the Big West Tournament final is a huge feat for this team and we were excited to be here.”
The tournament match was the third time the Titans and Matadors met this season. The previous two games resulted in 1-1 stalemates.
The first half of Saturday’s game mirrored the back and forth play exhibited in the first two meetings. Northridge came close to scoring the first goal in the 32nd minute when the Matadors caught goalkeeper David Elias out of position. The net was momentarily exposed as the ball bounced to a Matador player, but the Titan defense was able to pick up its goalkeeper and deny Northridge.
A defensive battle was expected between the two teams. The Titans and Matadors allowed the least amount of goals in the Big West this season. Northridge’s 1.12 goals-against average topped the conference with Fullerton right behind at 1.14.
Both defenses held strong in the first half as neither team scored in the first 45 minutes. Fullerton went into the locker room with an advantage in shots (5-3), shots on goal (1-0) and corner kicks (6-5).
The Titans broke through in the 58th minute off a corner kick from midfielder Nicolo D’Amato to start the second half. D’Amato placed the ball perfectly to leading scorer Alex Heilmann who headered it into the net for the 1-0 lead. The goal was Heilmann’s 12th of the season (most in Big West), and first of the tournament.
The momentum shifted in the 78th minute when Matador Edwin Quiroz saw his shot sail past Elias and into the back of the net to draw even at 1-1.
Ronaldo Pineda tried to get the Titans back on top by taking three shots for Fullerton in the final nine minutes, but was unable to slide one past the goalkeeper. In a fitting result, the Titans and Matadors went into overtime against each other for the third time this season.
The Titans are no strangers to overtime play as the championship match marked the ninth time Fullerton has played a game beyond regulation.
In the first overtime, Elias made what looked like to be a devastating mistake in the 99th minute by coming off his line and fouling a Matador player inside the box. Elias placed his hands on his head in disbelief after being whistled for the foul that set the Matadors up with a penalty kick.
With the game on the line, Juan Samayoa lined up against Elias, but Elias held strong in the big moment. When Samayoa took the shot, the Titan goalkeeper dove to his right to make the save that left the Matador players stupefied.
“We see him in training every day and we had confidence he could come up with a big one. You never know with PKs and you really got to give him credit today because he kept us in it and gave us a chance. In my opinion, he’s the MVP of the league,” Kuntz said.
What initially looked bleak for the Titans turned into a riveting moment before the start of the second overtime period. Despite the great play by Elias, the Titans were unable to faze the Northridge defense.
In the 109th minute, Matador midfielder Shane Steffes corralled a pass in the middle of four Fullerton players. Steffes slipped past two Titans before getting challenged by a Fullerton defender. Steffes lost the ball, but it found Matador Jere Degraffenreidt.
Without hesitation, Degraffenreidt got the shot off and saw it bounce into the net for the win.
The loss might have marked the end of Fullerton’s season. If the Titans had been able to win the Big West Tournament, the title would have guaranteed Fullerton an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.
After Saturday’s result, the Titans are now at the mercy of the selection committee, but the chances of being selected look slim as Fullerton is ranked 103rd in the NCAA men’s soccer RPI rankings. The Titans will have a definitive answer regarding their future after the brackets are announced Monday Nov. 14.