Eric Tucker doesn’t know it, but he was Cal Poly soccer on Friday night. Tucker doesn’t play for the Mustangs. He has never donned a striped green jersey. But he was there milling around a crowd of 8,000 students midfield, after the Mustangs defeated UC Santa Barbara on Friday night nonetheless. Unlike the rest though, he stood out.
Tucker stood out because he rushed the field on crutches. That’s right, crutches.
“All my roommates left, and I was left alone on crutches because I knew we would win,” said Tucker, a political science junior.
And when Patrick Sigler thrust a dagger into the Gauchos in the 90th minute?
“I pretty much lost my mind,” he said. “I pretty much lost my crutches too.”
Still, Tucker was there standing among thousands of Cal Poly students who undoubtedly lost their voices while celebrating and rushing the pitch.
And what about the men’s soccer team? The team never lost its cool, even after it conceded an early goal on a misplayed ball.
After a ferocious start on offense, the Mustangs took a sucker punch when UCSB’s Sam Garza beat McClain one-on-one on a breakaway in the 10th minute.
Still, the team fought on.
Senior left back Wes Feighner somersaulted to the ground in the 31st minute and laid motionless for what seemed like an eternity. The air looked like it was about to be sucked right of the stadium and drift away with the fog. Feighner could barely make it off the field, but the Mustangs trekked on.
Freshman Nolan Moore missed the crossbar by inches on a header with less than 30 minutes remaining, but the Mustangs fought back by crossing the ball into the middle and hoping for the best.
Chris Gaschen beat three defenders as he rushed to goal but was again denied on the outskirts of the penalty area. Gaschen, the hero of 2010, was forced to the sideline late in the match after blood started leaking down a cut on his face — a reminder of how deep the rivalry runs.
Undaunted, Mustangs kept returning to the net well past the 75th minute.
“It’s never easy to go down a goal, especially one as early as it came,” junior forward Benny Estes said in the midst of fans on the field. “But one of the things we talked about at half was keeping our heads up. The game of soccer is always unpredictable.”
Unpredictable it was. And finally, the team’s adamant nature paid off when Cameron Walters uncorked a primal cheer from Alex G. Spanos Stadium with a swift header into the back of the net. Seventy-nine minutes of pent up anxiety from fans and players alike finally burst onto the field in one seamless motion.
Even the king of unpredictable big plays on the football field, Asa Jackson, was impressed.
“I heard about how electric the atmosphere was (last year),” Jackson said while celebrating on the field. “And they did not disappoint. I’m really proud of our boys.”
Twenty minutes after the match, when the fans had mostly departed, the entire roster danced around the locker room spraying silly string and whatever else they could get their hands on.
Even head coach Paul Holocher couldn’t resist getting in on the action, and athletics director Don Oberhelman couldn’t praise the students or student-athletes enough.
“There is no place else in the United States where you have what we just had tonight,” Oberhelman said. “I hope our student body had the time of their lives tonight, and remember this the next time we have a game.”
Oberhelman, in his first year as athletics director, might have just gotten his wish.
Biological sciences freshman Kevin Londerholn, like Oberhelman, said he experienced his first taste of the Blue/Green rivalry on Friday night, and he’ll be back for more.
“I’m going to away games, home games, going crazy everyday, all day,” Londerholn said. “I was hugging people I’d never met, making good connections. Love it, Cal Poly, that’s what it’s all about.”
And the team is quick to reciprocate that love.
“It’s a dream to play in front of these fans, it wouldn’t happen without the fans, without the supports of the local community, without the student body,” Estes said. “I have to give it up to our fans, they make this such a special night and it’s an honor, for not only myself, but for our entire team to play in front of. It’s what drives us, it’s what got us those two goals, it’s what kept us pushing forward.”
The players responded to the fans, not with narcissistic self-promotion, but with class. Yes, there were chippy fouls that deserved a good scolding, but there was a certain amount of responsibility mixed in with the honor felt that night.
Cal Poly fans don’t need tortillas to show their support. The players don’t need to make enemies of the opposing fans to show they care. Each had everything they needed on Friday night at Alex G. Spanos Stadium and combined to defeat the Gauchos in another area – class.