LA JOLLA, Calif. - What…a…game!
In an instant classic between two great, nationally-ranked sides worthy of a conference final, No. 3 University of California San Diego outlasted No. 23 Sonoma State University, 4-3, to earn a record 11th California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) Women's Soccer Tournament title, and third straight, Sunday afternoon at Triton Soccer Stadium.
UC San Diego trailed 2-1 and then 3-2 before All-American forward Katie O'Laughlin (Carlsbad/Pacific Ridge School) headed home fellow senior Elisa Martinez's (El Cajon/Francis Parker School) free kick at 78:05 to level the score a third and final time. With overtime looming, redshirt sophomore center back Natalie Saddic (San Diego/Torrey Pines HS) got her head to a loose ball in the six-yard box after a Martinez corner kick, and despite contact by a defender, it trickled into the goal with only 34 ticks showing on the scoreboard clock.
Incredibly, all four UCSD goals were via headers from set pieces, with two on free kicks and two on corner kicks. Martinez assisted on three of them, while junior winger Summer Bales accounted for the other service, that one on a corner kick.
All four Triton tallies came from San Diego products. In addition to O'Laughlin and Saddic late, junior striker Mary Reilly (Chula Vista/Hilltop HS) opened the scoring in the 19th minute, with true freshman Caitlin McCarthy (Carlsbad/Carlsbad HS) making it 2-2 in the 56th.
Saddic was the clear CCAA Tournament Most Valuable Defensive Player, adding the title-winning goal as if her efforts at the back weren't enough. She cleared a ball off the line to keep Friday night's semifinal scoreless in the 63rd minute, with the lone goal coming just over four minutes later. Saddic was at center back for a second straight match, a forced maneuver by head coach Brian McManus and his staff as the Tritons' injury bug had hit Brie Diaz in the regular-season finale on Oct. 28, putting the senior stopper out of this tournament. Saddic, normally the defensive central midfielder, thus only took a few steps back on the pitch, and stole the show.
O'Laughlin's final equalizer netted her CCAA Tournament Most Valuable Offensive Player distinction. She and Saddic were joined on the All-Tournament Team by Bales, Martinez, McCarthy and Reilly.
The result gave UC San Diego a second straight CCAA double, as repeat champions both of the regular season and tournament. The Tritons were hosting the event for a fourth time, having staged previous editions in 2001, 2006 and 2008. They have come out as tourney champions in all four years.
It was an 11th appearance in a CCAA final for McManus' pupils. His Tritons are now 10-0-1 in those finals with those record 11 banners to show for their stellar work.
The win also marked No. 499 in the legendary 31-year career for McManus, with UC San Diego all but assured of going for that milestone 500th in the friendly confines next weekend.
As CCAA Tournament champion, UCSD clinched what it already knew it had earned, an NCAA Championship berth, as the league's automatic qualifier. The Tritons will learn their official seed and bracket as the 48-team NCAA field is announced on Monday, Nov. 6, at 3 p.m. PT live on NCAA.com. For all intents and purposes, however, as the top-rated team in the West in the NCAA's most recent regional prognostications, the Tritons should be hosting the first and second rounds in the coming week.
With a third straight victory, the top-seeded Tritons improved to 15-2-2 overall, in the process extending their unbeaten streak to 14 matches in a row, at 12-0-2 over this late stretch. Sonoma State drops to 14-4-1, but head coach Emiria Salzmann Dunn's game Seawolves are also not done. They were No. 2 in the West in last week's NCAA polls, and will most-assuredly be in the tournament come Monday.
The teams had not yet met this season, as the Oct. 15 matchup in Rohnert Park was canceled due to the severe wildfires in that area. Sunday marked the third time they have faced off in a CCAA final, with UCSD gaining the upper hand all three times.
Reilly, back in the lineup after sitting out Friday's semifinal, produced the glancing header at the near post off a left-sided free kick by Martinez at 18:30 to give her side the early advantage.
Sonoma State answered at 31:48 as substitute Paige Martinsen beat her defender on the right wing and crossed in for Sarah Lindborg, who found the far netting with her header for her second goal on the weekend.
The third-seeded visitors grabbed the ascendancy just 55 seconds into the second half. Bella Amyx fed forward to Alexis Espitia, who got to the end line and provided the cross that evaded Triton goalkeeper Angelica Ramos, such that Sara Van Wagoner only had to get in the way of it and direct it into the empty net with her defender on her back.
At 55:57, McCarthy got the near-post head on Bales' right-sided corner kick and found the net for her third of the season. It was Bales' team-best sixth assist.
Back and forth they went, as Espitia notched her team-best eighth in the 74th minute. Amyx again started the play, and Sam Layman sent a perfect through ball which Espitia ran onto and knocked past a charging Ramos, her shot dribbling across the goal line for a 3-2 Seawolf edge.
Was that it?
Still down four senior starters despite Reilly's return, starting four true freshmen with Saddic out of position and sophomore Lauren Plesse thrown into the fire in her place as of two nights prior, McManus' Tritons showed incredible resiliency over the final 15 minutes.
At 78:05, O'Laughlin was there to head Martinez's left-sided corner kick into the far netting to join her strike partner Reilly atop the team scoring chart at seven goals apiece. Then came one final heroic moment from Saddic to send the Triton portion of a thoroughly-satisfied crowd of 590 home happy.
The Martinez corner kick on that final tally came from the left side and took a touch from perhaps the Seawolf goalie on its way across to the back post. In that scrum, the ball got knocked back into the middle of the six-yard box, possibly but inconclusively by O'Laughlin, and Saddic was in the right place at the right time to put the slightest of headers onto it. The ball still took a deflection on its way to the goal line, it looked like by senior captain Cecilia Sifuentes, and found its way into the right side of the frame.
Ramos finished with four saves for UC San Diego. Counterpart Kristen Spear was credited with a single stop for Sonoma State. Shots were exactly even at 17-17, though the Tritons took eight corner kicks, all in the second half, to just two first-half attempts by the Seawolves.
Martinez finished with a career-high three assists, becoming the first Triton to do so this season, and first since O'Laughlin collected three helpers a year ago on Oct. 23. The playmaker has five assists in 2017.
Triton Notes: UCSD leads the all-time series, 19-2-3, including 4-0-1 at the CCAA Tournament ... UCSD remains an unbeaten 32-0-2 in its last 34 matches against CCAA opposition in all competitions (CCAA regular season, CCAA Tournament and non-conference), since a 1-0 loss at Sonoma State on Oct. 18, 2015 ... UCSD has held a 78-11 scoring advantage in those 34 games, and trailed in only three, including today ... The Tritons have allowed six goals during their current 14-game unbeaten streak (12-0-2), the first one an own goal at Cal State Dominguez Hills on Sept. 22 ... UCSD head coach Brian McManus is now just a single win shy of 500 for his legendary career ... UCSD is 11-1 in one-goal games this year, with seven 1-0 decisions in its favor ... Mary Reilly returned to the field after missing her first collegiate match Friday night following 61 consecutive starts to begin her career ... Senior starters Makenzie Brito, Brie Diaz, Aimee Ellis and Jordyn McNutt were all out for this tournament ... UCSD's four goals were a season high ... The Tritons improve to a perfect 11-0 at home in 2017, with at least one more game there ... It was a second multiple-assist game for Elisa Martinez in a UCSD uniform, and first multi-assist effort by a Triton this year.