Today marks the seventh time since 2008 that Long Beach State women’s soccer is making a NCAA Tournament appearance. That puts the 49ers among the best in the West, and they’ll be playing another one of the best teams in the country at USC. Kickoff is scheduled for 1:30 p.m.
“It’s going to take a mentality to go in and win the game,” LBSU coach Mauricio Ingrassia said. “We’ve done it before as a program, and these kids have played in big games throughout the years. This is why we play tough schedules year after year. We can go into a game like this with the confidence to know that we’ll have a chance.”
LBSU (12-5-3) won the Big West Conference championship for the second time in three years, but its biggest loss of the season came in September when the Beach fell 3-0 at USC in September. Ingrassia said his team has been watching that film for a little bit of everything this week.
“It’s the one game this season where we just didn’t show up,” Ingrassia said. “Maybe it was the time of year, and obviously they are very talented, so it could’ve been a variety of things. You’re allowed a stinker once and awhile, that was our stinker. We’ll see what we can come up with to change that.”
USC (15-2-2) was ranked in the top five for most of the season, and is one of the seeded teams in the bracket. The Trojans have outscored their opponents 48-10 this season and won six of their last eight games, but are coming off of a double overtime loss to UCLA. Freshman striker Penelope Hocking leads USC with 13 goals this season. Local Beach FC product Savannah DeMelo has seven goals and nine assists for the Trojans as a redshirt sophomore.
LBSU senior Ashley Gonzales leads her team with seven goals this season. She and Big West Conference Midfielder of the Year Dana Fujikuni both have 16 points after Fujikuni scored twice in the conference tournament to win the MVP award.
The LBSU defense didn’t have up a goal in the conference tournament, and hasn’t allowed a goal in more than 200 consecutive minutes of finals action. READ MORE about a trio of homegrown products on the back line.
LBSU has turned itself into a Big West Conference powerhouse by staying dedicated to one style of ball-control play.
“I always like to say that Long Beach State is in the conversation,” Ingrassia said. “If you play the style we play, which is possession-oriented, we can rest and defend ourselves with the ball. That’s a key.”
After winning its fifth regular season conference title, the top-seeded 49ers took down UC Davis 1-0 on Thursday at UC Irvine in the semifinal, and then beat UC Santa Barbara in the championship game 2-0 on Sunday.
“I’m proud of our program and all of the work our players and staff has put in,” Ingrassia said. “This is the reward.”
Fujikuni was named tournament MVP after scoring in both games. Fujikuni started her collegiate soccer career at UC Davis, transferred to LBSU in 2015, was named Big West Midfielder of the Year on last week and then scored the game-winner against UC Davis.
“She’s one of the best people I’ve had the pleasure to coach,” Ingrassia said of Fujikuni. “She’s grown each season, she’s a tireless worker and has a great heart for the team. This year she stepped up to a whole new level. It’s almost like the game became easier for her.”
Fujikuni scored the second goal in the championship game after showcasing her trademark activity all over the field. When she was announced as the MVP, her team erupted in celebration.
“I’m just so grateful,” Fujikuni said. “I’m just so happy that I get to do that with this team because they’re amazing. I absolute love every single one of them. I don’t think we’ve every been as connected as a team, and I’ve never heard a bench like ours and how they’re super supportive all the way through.”
Gonzales scored the game-winning goal on a set piece free kick in her fourth Big West tournament finals appearance.
“I just saw it,” Gonzales said of her perfect low hard strike. “We do it at practice, and I saw it open so I told my girls, ‘I’m gonna take this one’.”
The LBSU defense, including local seniors Imani McDonald and Sarah Maher, helped the 49ers post their 11th and 12th clean sheets of the season. McDonald is a Long Beach Poly High alum, and Maher is a Wilson High alum who was named Big West Defensive Player of the Year. McDonald made two incredible diving saves in the championship victory. READ MORE about McDonald, Maher and fellow Moore League alum Sarah Pilster.
“Imani was a game-winning goalkeeper today,” Ingrassia said. “She made that save to her left upper corner in the first half, and then she pushed the free kick into the post in the second half. Today, she was a strong candidate for MVP for sure.”
Ingrassia added that his program is gaining valuable experience by staying relevant in the conference, and playing top-notch opponents.
“It’s understanding that playing with too much emotion can work against you,” Ingrassia said. “It’s using emotion as fuel, but winning the game between the ears. I think our players thought their way though the game with hardly any mental mistakes. I think we weathered the storm from Santa Barbara in the first 15 minutes, but after that we took over the game by moving the ball.”