For the first time in four years, Cal State Fullerton women’s soccer did not end the season with its players lofting a Big West Tournament championship trophy above their heads.
The Titans fought UCI to a 1-1 standstill for 110 grueling minutes Thursday night before ultimately losing in penalty kicks.
“The game ebbs and flows and that’s the sport. Obviously I think you can pick it apart and there are a lot of things that we would like to have back, but in regards to what necessarily went wrong I’d say more things went right,” said CSUF Head Coach Demian Brown. “I thought more of the game was about what Cal State Fullerton soccer looked like and for that reason, I’m very proud of our women.”
Fullerton started the match looking primed to head to another conference final.
As she has so many times this season, Jessica Simonian boomed a free kick into the opponent’s box in the 29th minute. Big West All-Freshman goalkeeper Maddie Newsom batted the kick away, but her failure to secure the ball led to it taking a bounce to Titan leading scorer Sarah Fajnor. The junior forward buried the rebound for her seventh goal of the season, giving CSUF a 1-0 lead.
Fajnor immediately jumped into the arms of freshman Atlanta Primus in celebration as goalkeeper Jennifer Stuart made a beeline to midfield to celebrate with her teammates. The plentiful Titans fans in attendance began to chant “I believe that we will win,” but their celebration proved premature.
Just over 10 minutes later, Anteater defender Reema Bzeih sent a corner kick into the Titans’ penalty box. Kelsey Texeira was able to get her head on the pass, redirecting it past Stuart to tie things up for UCI at one goal apiece. Setting up the tie served as minor redemption for Bzeih, whose own goal in the two teams’ prior match four days before gave Fullerton a tie and the chance to win in overtime.
Both teams continued to attack for the entirety of regulation, but physical defense–and eventually, tired legs–led to neither squad being able to break the tie for the rest of regulation. For the second time in less than a week, the two teams were headed to overtime.
For 20 minutes of overtime, both teams continued to fire away, but Stuart and Newsom refused to yield. Stuart was credited with eight saves in her final performance for Fullerton, all the while being followed from goal to goal throughout the game by a UCI fan ringing a cowbell and screaming “‘Eaters!” over and over.
“If I’m getting heckled, I’m doing something right,” Stuart said. “I welcome it and it drives me more, but most of the time, I don’t even hear it. It’s not on my radar.”
One hundred ten minutes wasn’t enough to decide the match. Penalty kicks ultimately decided who was heading to the final.
Sammie James nailed her PK for UCI, as did Connie Caliz for CSUF. The pair of makes was followed by a pair of misses with Texeira unable to find the back of the net and Devin Spolsdoff missing for Fullerton.
Tala Haddad and Andrea Mensen’s makes kept things tied, but Maribell Morales’ miss was preceded by a score from Brittany Nguyen. A goal from Grayson Galbraith, who missed UCI’s prior match with CSUF after testing positive for strep throat and a false positive for mono, sent the Anteaters to the Big West Finals.
“Even when she wasn’t cleared to play, I was campaigning to have her cleared to take a PK,” said Anteater Head Coach Scott Juniper. “Even had she not been able to play through the 90 minutes and the overtime, I think we still would’ve had her step up and take a PK for us.”
After the sick Anteater sent CSUF home, “We are the Champions” blared over the speakers as CSUF realized it wouldn’t be. The team gathered at midfield, tears streaming down various Titans’ faces.
As one of four seniors departing the program and one of the best players in team history, it probably wasn’t the end Stuart had planned for her last game as a Titan.
“If that’s what it takes for us to lose then I’m okay with it. I’m so proud of my team,” Stuart said. “This was an unfortunate ending, and it’s the way soccer games have to end sometimes, but I couldn’t be more proud of my team and the season that I’ve had here.”
Despite Stuart’s departure and its failure to four-peat as Big West Tournament champions, the team is still hopeful Fullerton will rise to the top of the conference once again.
“I’m just really optimistic about our future classes,” Stuart said. “Our team is going to be strong and we’re going to be strong throughout history, throughout time.”