BERKELEY – Amidst the wild celebration that followed Rachel Mercik’s Golden Goal that resulted in last week’s win over Stanford was the not-so-insignificant fact that Cal’s women’s soccer team was able to head into the postseason with an extra dose of confidence.
Sure, the goal came in dramatic fashion against the Bears’ rivals and snapped a seven-year losing streak against the Cardinal. But it also gave Cal back-to-back wins after a six-match winless streak and some momentum heading into the NCAA Tournament.
“It was great to win and it had been seven years and all that stuff, but having momentum going into the tournament and having that win behind us is really huge for our team,” said Mercik, whose Bears open NCAA Tournament play Saturday at Santa Clara at 1 p.m. “We had some struggles there in the middle of the Pac-12, but being able to end it on a high note, on the road and we are playing on the road (Saturday), we know we can do this. We know if we play our game, we can win. It’s is nice going into the NCAA Tournament with some positivity.”
The Bears got off to the best start in program history this season at 9-0-4 and ascended as high as No. 8 in the national polls. But a couple of key injuries were part of the reason Cal reached a plateau during the second half of the conference season.
Despite the losing streak, Cal head coach Neil McGuire never lost confidence that his team was more like the one during the first half of the season and is well-equipped to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
“I think the team actually was feeling pretty positive, even though we lost some games,” McGuire said. “We got a little injured there. We had some setbacks, but the girls handled it really well. We’ve had great success and had some great, great wins this year.”
The Bears’ first-round assignment won’t be easy. The Broncos enter the tournament ranked ninth in the country. Cal and Santa Clara played each other during the regular season and the game ended in a 1-1 tie in double overtime.
McGuire called it the toughest first-round matchup in the 2013 field.
“One of the reasons that it’s a challenging matchup for both teams is these are both teams that have been ranked in the top-10 throughout the season,” McGuire said. “When healthy, both teams play phenomenal soccer. It’s going to be a battle between two exceptional teams, and a fun one for the fans to watch. It’s going to come down to a moment of magic.”
Despite such a tough first-round opponent, there are some positives in playing Santa Clara. Cal can prepare almost as if it’s a home match as all it has to do is make the hour-long drive for the contest. And the Bears are very familiar with the Broncos and Buck Shaw Stadium. The teams have met 36 times overall and have played on Santa Clara’s home pitch twice in the past four years.
“We know every strand of grass on that field and we know how the ball skips and how it moves,” Mercik said. “We know what kind of soccer we need to play in order to get a win on that field. It’s great. We come out toughest against this team.”