Though a virulent fungus has taken over much of the UC Irvine soccer field, the Anteaters' men's program's 2014 season appeared to have taken root in impressive fashion on Monday night.
The No. 16-ranked hosts handled No. 7-ranked Cal in a season-opening exhibition that came just three days after the start of preseason workouts.
Senior forward Trey Hayes scored in the 28th minute and, after a penalty kick knotted things, the Anteaters, coming off a 15-5-3 campaign that included Big West Conference Southern Division and conference tournament titles and a nine-game unbeaten streak into the NCAA Sweet 16, responded with a pair of second-half goals.
Senior midfielder Dennis Martinez posted the game-winner, drilling a free kick from just outside the center of the 18-yard box over a wall of defenders and high up in the right corner of the net in the 60th minute.
UCI, which did not substitute until nearly midway through the second half, added an insurance tally from senior Gor Kirakosyan in the 81st minute.
Junior goalkeeper Michael Breslin made four saves in nearly 80 minutes, while sophomore Elliot Farmer closed things out in front of a back line anchored by senior center back Bryan Breslin.
"It was a great defensive effort," said Bryan Breslin, who saw the Anteaters also display plenty of offense, outshooting the Golden Bears, 13-7. "And the offense wasn't bad either. Trey got that early goal, which was big, and we just kept going from there. We got a little unlucky with the penalty [that set up Cal's goal], but that kind of motivated us after that.
"It's really early in the season and we don't look at rankings too much. But we wanted to come out strong tonight. We were motivated, but we like to pay attention to those final season rankings."
UCI Coach Chris Volk, in his first season at the helm after stepping in for George Kuntz, who moved to Cal State Fullerton after 19 seasons as UCI's head man, was also predominantly pleased.
"We're not going to get too high off of this result, because we know it doesn't count," Volk said. "But it does count toward our confidence and its a good way to kick off the season here at home.
Volk praised the play of defensive midfielders — junior Mats Bjurman and sophomore Michael Sperber, and also singled out Hayes and senior midfielder Cameron Iwasa.
Iwasa, a co-captain along with Bjurman, earned the assist on the opening goal, taking a through ball on the right wing and driving toward the goal. Iwasa then delivered a deft pass to Hayes, who was streaking toward the net and deposited the assist inside the right post to give UCI a lead.
Sperber was called for a foul near the top corner of the 18-yard box and the referee deemed it had occurred inside the box, giving Cal a penalty shot that senior Bobby Sekine, out of nearby Woodbridge High, converted in the 55th minute.
Kirakosyan's capping score came when a shot near the cage by junior Taft Community College transfer Gerardo Gonzalez was deflected away from the goal, to Kirakosyan sitting about 10 yards directly in front. Kirakosyan, who missed last season with a torn ACL, boomed a shot that caromed off a defender and into the net.
Kirakosyan, who entered the game with about 20 minutes remaining, led the winners with four shots. Bjurman, Hayes and Martinez had two shots apiece.
Cal, which reached the NCAA quarterfinals last season, missed a chance to score in the opening 90 seconds, when senior Seth Casiple's sliding toe poke from directly in front that Michael Breslin had no chance to stop, sailed wide.
Cal had four of the first five shots, before UCI's defense settled in.
"I think we dodged a few bullets early," Volk said. "And we need to get better defending the midfield, though we are very talented there. But we've only had three days of training camp, so I'm keeping things in perspective."
The perspective from atop the stands revealed a playing surface ravaged by the fungus that began eating barren patches of sod about three weeks ago, Volk said.
"The field was pristine about three weeks ago, then the fungus just took over."
Most of the 18-yard box on the South end of the field has been re-sodded, as has the six-yard box on the north end. But the middle patches from sideline to sideline were pocked by patches of dead sod, some of which made a few watermelon-size holes that were filled with sand.
"I don't think it had an affect on the outcome," Volk said. "The pro team [Orange County Blues] has been playing on it, so if its good enough for the pros, our college guys can play on it."
UCI will do just that on Aug. 31, when its opens its schedule for real against Pacific at 7 p.m.