By Jarrod Castillo Athletics Editor
The team celebrating after receiving the Big West Championship trophy. (John Fajardo/LBSU Athletics)
Throughout head coach Mauricio Ingrassia’s tenure at Long Beach State, the women’s soccer team has had tremendous success and this season has been no exception.
Despite missing the 2017 Big West Defensive Player of the Year, Kaitlin Fregulia, all year, the Beach didn’t miss a beat, especially with senior forward Ashley Gonzales returning to the lineup after a lost 2017 season.
As a result, everyone expected another Big West title. However, two obstacles stood in the way: the UC Davis Aggies and the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos.
LBSU vs. UC Davis, Nov. 1:
To begin the Big West Tournament, the Beach (11-5-3) faced the UC Davis Aggies (7-8-4), who they tied with a few days prior in a double-overtime thriller. Both teams played hard, settling for a 3-3 draw and it appeared the same tenacity carried over as both teams came prepared.
The Beach would have the first attempt to score as sophomore forward Kayla Cannon would get a shot off in the third minute. However, it was well-defended by the Aggie goalkeeper, senior Alexis Smith, who corralled the shot.
Defense defined the first half as neither side got an inch in the stalemate. For the most part, the teams were evenly matched. While Long Beach State had more shots than UC Davis (5-2), the Aggies had more corner kicks (3-1) and fouls (6-2).
For the Beach, their best opportunity of the first half came with less than 30 seconds remaining. Sophomore forward Rola Badawiya made her way down the left side of the box and shot the ball just over the crossbar, leaving the score 0-0 at the end of one.
With the score tied, the Beach came out aggressive in the second half, looking to land the first punch. The team wouldn’t wait long, as less than four minutes after the start of the second, Long Beach State would be up 1-0.
Weaving her way around a myriad of Aggie defenders, senior forward Katie Pingel crossed the ball into the box where senior midfielder Dana Fujikuni was waiting. Striking the ball with her left foot, the ball caromed off the post and danced on the line, leading to Cannon tapping the ball in.
At first, it appeared that Cannon had scored, although after the game, it was confirmed that the ball was indeed past the line before Cannon tipped it in. Regardless of the goal scorer, Ingrassia noted how in high-pressure games such as these, one goal was enough for the knockout blow.
“Our team is always looking for that knockout punch and today, we knew that one goal in a decisive game like this is very hard to come back [from],” Ingrassia said.
With the lead, Ingrassia said he was “very confident” in senior goalkeeper Imani McDonald’s leadership with the defense.
Afterwards, Fujikuni said that it was a relief to score that goal.
“It was relieving but at the same time, there [were] about 20 minutes left and I knew we still had to stay engaged and focused and play it all the way out,” she said.
Dana Fujikuni (9) celebrates her goal in their 1-0 victory over UC Davis. (John Fajardo/LBSU Athletics)
Down 0-1, UC Davis played at a more frenetic pace, hoping to score an equalizer. With less than three minutes to play, sophomore forward Mahlah Catline had a shot to tie the game for the Aggies but was saved by McDonald for her fourth save of the game.
With that, Long Beach State pulled out the 1-0 victory over the UC Davis Aggies and advanced to the final, where the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos awaited.
LBSU vs. UC Santa Barbara, Nov. 4:
Coming into the game, UC Santa Barbara (13-7-1) looked strong, especially considering that they scored on UC Irvine 20 seconds into their 1-0 win. Thus, the onus was on Long Beach State (12-5-3) to make sure that it wouldn’t happen.
As expected, UC Santa Barbara started out aggressive, trying to use any sliver of space to make passes. Conversely, the Beach kept their defense firm and denied any opportunities that the Gauchos had.
Although both sides played well at first, that would soon change. After being awarded a free kick in the 25th minute just outside the box, senior forward Ashley Gonzales lined up the ball and shot it past the Gaucho wall and into the back left corner of the net for her 36th career goal.
“We do it at practice and I saw it opened so I told my girls, I said, ‘I’m gonna take this one,’” Gonzales said.
More importantly, it gave the Beach a 1-0 lead in a game where one goal could very well decide the contest. With a goal on the scoreboard, Long Beach became more aggressive, looking to put the final nail in the coffin, as the Beach outshot (9-5), had more corner kicks (4-1) and drew more fouls (4-2) than the Gauchos in the first half.
After conceding the goal, UC Santa Barbara looked stunned and discombobulated. Nevertheless, Long Beach State couldn’t capitalize and the score would remain 1-0 after 45 minutes.
In the second, the Beach looked to continue the pressure as they looked for the knockout blow against the Gauchos.
With the score at 1-0, senior defender and eventual Big West Tournament MVP Dana Fujikuni took matters into her own hands. In the 56th minute, Fujikuni took advantage of Gaucho goalkeeper, junior Hannah DeWeese, being out of position and shot the ball perfectly to the back of the net.
That would effectively seal the game for the Beach as it appeared that the Gauchos lost more than just focus: it looked like they lost the will to fight once that second goal was in the net.
There were instances where UC Santa Barbara had good opportunities to score. In their way stood senior goalkeeper Imani McDonald, who saved five shots. Her tremendous defensive presence was something Ingrassia noted.
“Imani, today, was on fire,” he said. “I always say you have goalkeepers that don’t cost you games and you have keepers that win you games and today, she was a strong candidate for MVP of the game for sure.”
Although the game got chippy as time ran out, no damage would be done as Long Beach State picked up its fourth Big West title in five years and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the seventh time with the 2-0 victory over UC Santa Barbara.
As the Beach looks forward to playing USC on Friday, Nov. 9 at 1:30 p.m. in the NCAA Tournament, Fujikuni says the team is ready.
“I don’t think we’ve ever been so connected as a team, 1 through 27,” she said. “I don’t know if you hear our bench but I’ve never heard a bench like that. Super supportive, all the way through.”