LA JOLLA, Calif. - It was all just so fitting.
Having caused a penalty kick that put his side 1-0 down at the break, senior center back Kuba Waligorski redeemed himself and did it in a big way in heading home two set pieces in the second half and sending the University of California San Diego to the semifinals of the 2016 NCAA Division II Men's Soccer Championship.
Sunday's final score at Triton Soccer Stadium was thus 2-1 in favor of 10th-ranked UC San Diego over No. 11 Midwestern State. The sequence of events meant a remarkable seventh time during this incredible 2016 campaign, that ninth-year head coach Jon Pascale's resilient, veteran side has turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 victory. The most recent instance, ironically, also involved a first-half penalty-kick deficit, with a great deal on the line, against Sonoma State in the California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) Tournament final in Turlock exactly two weeks prior.
The come-from-behind triumph also meant that UCSD maintained an unbeaten 12-0-1 mark in front of the home fans this season, which numbered 598 Sunday.
The Tritons, first-time CCAA regular-season, CCAA tournament and Division II West Region champions, improve to 19-2-2 with a sixth straight win. They are now 14-1-1 over their last 16 contests. Midwestern State, the Heartland Conference regular-season champion out of Wichita Falls, Texas, and the second-seeded South Central Region victor, saw its run ended at 18-4-1. The Mustangs had actually just on Friday in that South Central final, trailed 1-0 at halftime to fierce league rival St. Edward's, before scoring three unanswered goals and taking a 3-2 decision.
UC San Diego moves on to face top-ranked Wingate (N.C.) in the first national semifinal on Thursday, Dec. 1, at 9 a.m. PT at the Children's Mercy Victory Field at Swope Soccer Village in Kansas, City, Mo. It will be a first national semifinal appearance for the Tritons since 1993, when they won the program's third and final championship at the Division III level. Wingate was a 1-0 home winner over No. 14 Tampa earlier Sunday. Fourth-ranked Charleston (W.Va.) and sixth-ranked Rockhurst (Mo.), which happens to be from Kansas City, will contest the other semifinal at 12 p.m. PT.
Midwestern State earned its penalty kick in the 31st minute as Waligorski stuck his leg out at an inopportune time to trip Mustang senior Leon Taylor in a rather innocuous position at the very top of the box. Sophomore defender Patrick Fitzgerald buried the try into the bottom left corner for his fourth goal of the year and third in three penalty-kick attempts.
The tally snapped UCSD's run in La Jolla of 10 consecutive clean sheets for a total of 1035:55. It also came with the odd detail of being a third successive goal conceded by virtue of the penalty spot by the Tritons' defense, which entered the game as the top unit statistically in all of Division II with a 0.44 team goals-against average.
Pascale had surmised in talking to his team after Saturday afternoon's training session, that UCSD could have an advantage in its set pieces, with MSU having not seen them before. That belief came to fruition after the interval.
In the 58th minute, senior winger Justice Duerksen floated a right-sided corner kick toward the middle, just to the outside of the six-yard box. Waligorski leapt and caught the ball square with his forehead at the height of his jump, guiding it over Mustang goalkeeper Noah Fazekas, who may have been unsighted by the heavy traffic in front of him. Duerksen's assist was his fifth.
Then in the 77th, UCSD earned a free kick about midway between the center line and the 18-yard box. Senior Nick Palano and junior Uly de la Cal staged a perfect misdirection play before de la Cal finally ripped into the ball and sent it right-footed to essentially the penalty spot. Waligorski ran onto it and ultimately grazed the ball with his head, just enough to direct it past Fazekas for what proved to be the winner.
The touch was so faint that it was initially ruled as de la Cal's goal, as is often seen in soccer with a goalie expecting a touch on an approaching free kick, only to not get one and be late to react. After further inspection and discussion, however, the ruling changed to a Waligorski goal for his first collegiate brace when needed most. It was de la Cal's league-leading eighth assist.
Midwestern State still had time to put two giant scares into the Triton faithful. Flavio Guzman rattled the crossbar with a left-footed curler from a right-sided free kick in the 84th minute. Then with just over 90 seconds left on the scoreboard clock, Taylor got his head to a cross from the left by Alex Mullet, but senior goalkeeper Cameron McElfresh made the spectacular tip save over the bar and out for a corner kick.
McElfresh finished with three saves, while Fazekas, himself a senior, was not credited with a single one over the 90 minutes. UCSD was actually out-shot, 15-8, for the third straight NCAA tournament game at home, but keeps on dancing.
MSU had the better of the chances in the first half. In just the 12th minute, Christian Okeke hit Gabriel Cavalcante on the right diagonal, but the senior Brazil native went wide to the right with his right-footed attempt. Then in the 18th, Fitzgerald got his head to a Flavio Guzman corner kick, necessitating a diving effort by McElfresh to his right, to parry the ball out for another corner. The visitors ended up with a 7-3 advantage in that department as well, including 5-0 over the first 45 minutes.
UCSD's best opportunity to find the back of the net in the opening stanza came in the 39th, when de la Cal was wide left with a promising shot with the inside of his right foot off a left-sided cross.
Triton Notes: UCSD has evened its NCAA Division II Championship record now at 3-1-3 over its four appearances, including 3-0-1 at home and 1-0 against Midwestern State ... The Tritons had posted 10 consecutive shutouts at home, with Sunday's first-half penalty kick snapping that streak at 1035:55 ... The 19 wins are the Tritons' most since going 21-2-1 during their last Division III national-title season in 1993 ... UCSD is 13-1 in one-goal decisions ... Sonoma State's first-half penalty kick in the CCAA final was at 34:07 before UCSD won it 2-1 in overtime ... Four of the last six goals the Tritons have surrendered, three straight, and four of just 11 this year, have come from the penalty spot ... Among the dignitaries on hand was legendary UC San Diego men's soccer coach Derek Armstrong, who guided the program to all three Division III national titles.