This time last year, the Slugs were in the middle of what would go on to be a three game losing streak entering the postseason. Now, the team is on their way to finishing the regular season stronger, with two straight wins and one game left to go before the first round of the playoffs. The Slugs still look for the same end result as last year’s team — a WCLL championship.
Entering the playoffs as the lowest ranked seed last season, UCSC went on a cinderella run to win the playoffs with wins over No. 1 seed Humboldt and No. 2 seed University of Nevada, Reno. Their most recent 11-3 win over San Jose State secured a spot in the playoffs for the Slugs.
“The key is we will have two weeks to prepare before the playoffs start,” said head coach Mike O’Neill. “We have seen all the opponents so we know what it takes to defeat each team.”
But the Slugs couldn’t afford to look ahead to the playoffs before Saturday’s matchup against the San Jose State Spartans, as a loss would have killed any chance they had of postseason play. With that on both teams’ minds, the game became physical very early as Slug and Spartan players were body checking and sticking each other up and down the field.
In the beginning of the first quarter, the Slugs asserted themselves by scoring two quick goals and grabbing the early game momentum. However, minutes later, the Spartans came back with two goals of their own and knotted the game up at 2-2 before the end of the first quarter.
This was the closest San Jose State would come to UCSC for the rest of the game. In the second quarter the Slugs hit their stride offensively and built a formidable lead as they put the Spartans in their rearview mirror and ran away with the match.
“A lot of our play was about our confidence and our flow,” captain David Cowman said. “Since we started strong it gave us a stronger chance of winning and keeping our opponent out of the match.”
The team’s defense was stifling and managed to hold the Spartans to only one more goal after the first quarter. Not even the Spartans’ best players Jacob Schekman and Cody Gradone, who led the team this season with 14 goals each, were able to score more than one goal. Offensively, the Slugs were able to score nine more times behind a huge outing from Tyler Oswalt, who led UCSC with three goals.
In the end, UCSC defeated the Spartans 11-3 and qualified for the WCLL playoffs for the fifth straight year. Even though UCSC is currently ranked fifth among the WCLL Division II teams and only the top four teams qualify for the playoffs, they were still able to sneak in.
The Slugs grabbed the last playoff spot because division leader and undefeated Sierra Nevada couldn’t qualify for the postseason this year, as it was their first season and they were under probationary status.
As soon as the final whistle blew, the players on the bench ran onto the field jumping with joy, joining their teammates as they gathered in a circle with their sticks held high. O’Neill said preparation played a key role.
“We scouted our opponent,” said head coach Mike O’Neill. “We knew who their stronger players were and we felt if we pressured them they would give up possession of the ball.”
Before the conference playoffs start for the Slugs, they must travel to Arcata, Calif. to play Humboldt State in a crucial game that will decide their seeding in the playoffs. Earlier this season the Slugs lost to the Humboldt Hogs 15-14 at home in an overtime thriller. UCSC is looking to get even for their loss and end the regular season on a three game winning streak. The team wants nothing more than to stay hot as they enter postseason play.
“Playing Humboldt is going to be a fun and challenging game,” freshman Joey Forman said. “If we beat Humboldt, it gives us the opportunity to play our rival St. Mary’s, who we lost to earlier in the season, and this time we are hoping to avenge the loss.”
O’Neill expects there’s a good chance San Jose State will lose their upcoming game Friday at the University of Nevada, Reno, which would give the Slugs a chance of locking down the No. 3 seed for the WCLL tournament. If this happens, UCSC will head into the postseason in better shape than last year. Then, it will be up to them to defend their throne.