Originally Published: November 8, 2018 11:30 p.m.
TORRANCE, Calif. — Veteran players on the Embry-Riddle men’s soccer team weren’t joking when, at the beginning of the 2018 season, they believed that the Eagles had a chance to contend for a Cal Pac Conference Tournament title.
On Thursday, Nov. 8, fifth-seeded Embry-Riddle shocked the conference field when it upset No. 1 seed and regular-season league champion UC-Merced, 2-1, in overtime of the tournament semifinals at El Camino College.
With the victory, the Eagles qualified for the championship match at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 10, also at El Camino, against No. 2 seed Marymount California, which shut out third-seeded Antelope Valley, 2-0, in the other semifinal. Marymount is the four-time defending conference tourney titlist.
“I’m excited for the players,” second-year Embry-Riddle coach Dan Balaguero said afterward. “It was about their attitude – and we wanted to be a little bit more direct and not so expansive [with our attack]. We showed more fight and more will.”
The Eagles are one win away from automatically qualifying for the NAIA National Championship tournament, which starts Saturday, Nov. 17, at campus sites across the country. Nationals then moves to Orange County Great Park Soccer Stadium from Monday, Nov. 26, through Saturday, Dec. 1, in Irvine, California.
In Thursday’s first league semifinal, Embry-Riddle sophomore Jarred Petersen, who hadn’t scored a goal all season, tallied the golden goal with 14 minutes and 58 seconds remaining in overtime to snap Merced’s program-best 12-match winning streak. Petersen corralled the ball in the box off of a 30-yard free kick from the left side and lined it into the side of the Merced net.
After a scoreless first half, the Eagles grabbed a 1-0 lead in the 56th minute when Daniel Nunez scored. However, 5 minutes later, UC Merced’s Artemio Contreras knotted it at 1-1 to set up the thrilling finish in the extra session.
Embry-Riddle’s riding a bit of a revenge tour right now. The Eagles, who lost their regular-season finale to Benedictine-Mesa Nov. 3 in Prescott, edged the Red Hawks, 1-0, in the tournament’s quarterfinals Nov. 7. ERAU, which lost to UC Merced Oct. 6 in Prescott, countered on Thursday.
“That’s exactly what it was – it was absolutely revenge,” Balaguero said of his Eagles’ first two wins at tournament. “Two [regular-season] games at home gifted away. I let the boys know about it.”
The question now is whether the Eagles can complete the revenge-tour trifecta Saturday against Marymount, which defeated Embry-Riddle, 3-1, in California on Sept. 29.
“We knew it would be difficult [to get to this point], but the boys stepped up,” Balaguero said. “We need to recover quickly tonight [Thursday] and enjoy the win for a little bit [before getting back after it on Friday].
“Now we’re in the final, and we’ll see what we can do.”
Embry-Riddle (12-6-1) faces Marymount California (12-4-3), which received votes in the latest NAIA poll, for the Cal Pac Conference tournament championship at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 10, at El Camino College.
UC Merced (13-4-2), by virtue of winning the regular-season conference crown with an unbeaten league record, automatically qualifies for NAIA nationals along with the Cal Pac tournament champion. The Cal Pac has 12 teams in the conference and, by rule, can have two nationals’ bids. Like Marymount, Merced also garnered votes in the latest NAIA poll.
Doug Cook is a reporter for The Daily Courier. Follow him on Twitter at @dougout_dc. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 928-445-3333, ext. 2039.