Nov. 12, 2014
Titans 3 – Highlanders 0

As the final seconds wound down, several blue and gold jerseys spotted the field in crouched positions, shocked at the twist of events that led to a 3-0 loss in the Big West semifinals against Cal State Fullerton, 3-0. The men’s soccer team had an improbable journey up to this point, posting a 4-3-3 conference record and defeating nationally ranked UC Irvine twice, claiming the Big West Southern Championship.

The anticipation in the air was heavy as children, students and fans piled into the stands prior to the game. Highlanders had their blue and yellow kits while the Titans wore white. Some fans were spread along the fence bordering the field, and some even opted for the staircase in the Materials Science and Engineering building for a better view.

The opening goal came from a penalty kick in the first five minutes. Titan Ian Ramos took advantage of a foul committed by Highlander Stephen Copley in the box, which resulted in a red card and his dismissal from the game.

At this point, Head Coach Tim Cupello knew the odds were stacked against his team. “Tough game to play when you’re down a man,” he stated. “I give our guys a lot of credit, even being down a man, we took it to them quite a bit.”

UCR outshot CSUF, nine to three in the first period, but couldn’t convert any chances into the back of the net.

The Highlanders quickly attempted to even up the match. By the 10th minute, UCR had a chance to score from a corner kick by Ricardo Ruiz, which led to a missed shot by Ruiz a minute later.

“In the first half we had more shots and corner kicks, which means a bit more of an attacking threat,” Cupello said.

The Highlanders played aggressive offensively due to their early point deficit. This meant there would be easier counterattacks from the Titans.

At 12:53, Fullerton’s Marc Fenelus scored with the help of Colin Okirie and Ian Ramos, 2-0. He made the goal from 12 yards out.

UCR’s defense came into the game having a record low of goals against average (1.06), and goals allowed (20). Starting goalie K.C. John was fresh off a six-save game against UCI, but was pulled for Ashkan Khosravi in the 20th minute.

A few minutes later, in the 29th minute, UCR could have shifted the momentum with a penalty kick after a foul committed by the Titans’ Gabriel Quintero. Highlander Otis Earle had the pressure on his shoulders, as he approached the penalty box. He sent his shot to the bottom left corner which was blocked by an outstretched Jeff Salt.

“I put it decently in the bottom left but he’s a big kid. I should’ve put it higher, to be honest,” Earle said.

In the second half, UCR continued their offensive attack, with Juan Mendoza attempting a shot at the 47th minute, only to be blocked again by Salt. Both teams tried to score without any luck until late in the game. In the 75th minute, CSUF’s Diego Sanchez placed a goal from four yards out to bring the Titans’ lead to 3-0. Nicolo D’Amato and Mark Vasquez were both awarded assists.

The Highlanders were unable to score in the game, as their late-season run came to an end with a 3-0 loss.

“Obviously they scored on the two chances they did have,” Cupello stated. “It’s tough when there’s a call like that’s made that early that drastically changes the landscape of the game. Unfortunately it’s the second time against that team we had to deal with that.”

Cupello was referring to the game UCR played against CSUF with two less men, which still resulted in a 2-2 tie in double overtime. However, on this high-stakes night, playing down a man meant more ground to cover and less scoring opportunities for UCR.

“To protect a player defensively, you lose a player offensively. We had to play 85 minutes down a man, and it drastically, drastically changes the landscape of the game,” Cupello said.

Cupello showed remorse when asked about his graduating class of players but is proud of their influence on the program.

“At the end of the day these guys made an impact during their duration in the program. They left the program better than they joined it,” he said. “There’s a lot of talent returning and there’s going to be talent coming in.”

Graduating senior Earle also reflected on their successful year.

“We turned it around, with only two wins in the beginning (of the season),” he said. “At the end of the day … we won the southern championship and I’m excited as an alumni to see what’s in store.”

“We beat nationally ranked teams and we have guys getting drafted in the MLS,” Cupello said.

Moving on to next season, he hopes for an even more successful year. “Our ambition moving forward is to be back in the same setting, hosting a playoff game next year and hopefully turning that into a positive result,” indicated Cupello.

After the game, the Highlanders slowly made their way to the opposite goal to debrief their game. The hours of training, travel and tribulations had come to an end. For the seniors it was their last game. Moving forward, Cupello and his team hope this experience may be the extra push the Highlanders need to make it to the conference finals next season.