Entering overtime, the Southern Oregon University men’s soccer team had done just about everything right in the second half except for one major thing — get a goal.
“Honestly, I never thought it was going to come,” SOU head coach Davie Carmichael said with a laugh. “We had so many different chances, but it seemed like (UC Merced’s) keeper was having the game of his life.”
But, leave it to a friendly bounce to send the Raiders to Southern California.
A deflection off Esteban Castaneda’s 98th-minute corner kick proved to be the golden goal that No. 13-seeded Southern Oregon was searching for all Saturday afternoon, as the Raiders beat UC Merced 1-0 at Raider Stadium to advance to the second round of the NAIA National Championships.
“It’s amazing,” Resendez said. “This is the last game here (this season) and winning in the last minute it’s history.”
The Raiders (17-2-3) have scored much prettier goals this season. But this one, which will officially go down as an own goal, is their most important to date as they stretched their unbeaten run to 20 straight games.
It all started with an SOU counterattack that resulted in Renee Resendez’s shot from point-blank range being tipped over the crossbar and earned the Raiders their 10th corner kick of the afternoon. Castaneda whipped an in-swinger toward the 6-yard box and the ball was just out of the reach of Bobcats goalkeeper David Hernandez, who up to that point had played a near-perfect game.
The ball instead went off a UC Merced defender and into the back of the net.
The celebration was worthy of the history that was made — SOU recorded its first-ever NAIA tournament win in the first-ever playoff game played in Ashland.
SOU which beat UC Merced by the same 1-0 score two months ago, will face No. 4 seed Rio Grande (Ohio) on Monday, Nov. 26, in Irvine, Calif.
“It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work getting to this point,” SOU co-captain Kelly Gieber said. “A lot of emotion right now. I remember getting here freshman year (in 2016) and this was the first goal that we had, just getting to nationals and past the play-in game. To finally do it after three years, I wouldn’t say it’s satisfying — the only way we’re going to be satisfied is with a title — but it’s redeeming.
“In the end, it was an ugly goal, but a goal’s a goal and we’ll take it.”
For how well they closed the game out, the Raiders were under quite a bit of pressure in the opening 45 minutes.
UC Merced (13-5-2) not only came out with a high line and loads of pressure, but limited SOU to not much of any time in the attacking third of the field.
The Raiders didn’t attempt their first shot until 20 minutes in, and didn’t get their first shot on goal until the final moments of the first half.
But the turning point came when Carmichael, the Cascade Conference’s coach of the year, made the tactical switch that sparked his team.
Out with a 3-5-2 formation and in with a 4-3-3, something that allowed his team to still have three central midfielders but also get more width.
“We thought (UC Merced) was going to set up a certain way and maybe they adapted to us,” Carmichael said. “We recognized in that first half that things weren’t going as we planned — we were pinned back, we were defending deep and we realized that change was needed. We went to a 4-3-3 in the second half and really controlled the tempo of the game, kept it locked in their half. The chances came from that.”
A sign of just how dominant the Raiders were after halftime?
SOU and UC Merced both attempted four shots in the first half. After the break, the Raiders out-shot their opposition 14-1 as Hernandez made four of his five saves in the second half.
En route to recording his 15th shutout of the season, SOU goalkeeper Wyatt Zabinski didn’t record a save. He did, however, control his box as well as he possibly could have, limiting UC Merced’s aerial threats whenever a cross was sent toward the Raiders’ goal.
UC Merced entered the game second in the NAIA in shots on goal per game (12.8).
“UC Merced is a very good team and I think they’re used to very big margins of winning,” Carmichael said. “We saw them get tired in the second half and we saw their legs start to go a little bit. That has to do with travel and maybe their conference overall. We’ve been playing against Corban and Rocky Mountain and other nationally-ranked teams. That (CCC tournament) final was good preparation for us.”
The Raiders nearly went in front 15 minutes into the second half, as Resendez — who earned Carmichael’s praises after the game — was on the end of a free kick from just inside the midfield line, only to see his header hit the bottom of the right post.
It was a pretty accurate representation of how the second half was going for SOU.
The Raiders were knocking on the Bobcats’ door time and time again, but couldn’t get that one final breakthrough in regulation.
“We knew (a goal) was close, we knew that we were working for it,” Castaneda said. “When Davie told us to change and that it was going to work, we just listened. That’s what we do. We listen and he’s the one that knows. He just gave us an instruction, we followed it and look at it because it worked.”
The goal finally did come — and the Raiders extended their season at least another week because of it.
“The crowd here was crazy and the biggest it’s been in my three years here,” Gieber said. “When that goal went in, it’s euphoria and I can’t even really explain it.”
Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper