The Cal State Northridge soccer team's 2-0 loss to Southern Connecticut in the championship game of the NCAA Division II Final Four in Tampa, Fla., ended more than just a season. It concluded what Coach Marwan Ass'ad called the "first generation" of CSUN soccer.
The Southern Connecticut match marked the final appearance of seniors Joey Kirk, Thor Lee, Mike Caputo, Rodney Batt, Mike Harvey and Alex Herrera, all of whom helped the Matadors win their fourth consecutive California Collegiate Athletic Assn. title.
"Every year for the last five years, I've said, 'This is my best team ever,' " said Ass'ad, who has an 81-16-11 record in five seasons with the Matadors. "It became a cliche, but it was true. We were challenged and raised our level every year, but we still have a ways to go."
Next season's CSUN team might have difficulty matching this year's success. The Matadors had been eliminated three consecutive times in the quarterfinals and had never before reached the final.
The Matadors finished 19-2-1, establishing school records for most wins and fewest losses in a season, longest win streak (8) and longest unbeaten streak (14).
It also was a memorable season for Kirk, who established school records for goals in a season (30), goals in a career (59), points in a season (77) and points in a career (162). The forward from Granada Hills, who is a member of the U. S. National team, is a candidate for All-American honors and two different college player-of-the-year awards presented by the NCAA and the Missouri Athletic Club.
"We played the best we've ever played near the end of the season and one of the big points was watching Joey get better and better," Ass'ad said. "There was supposed to be some minor overhauling this season, but the new players did their best to make it a continuation of what we had started."
CSUN began with a 1-0 exhibition loss to UCLA before opening the season with a come-from-behind 3-2 win in overtime against San Diego State, the Division I runner-up this season.
The Matadors won six in a row before suffering their first setback of the regular season, a 3-1 nonconference loss to Westmont on Oct. 3.
CSUN rebounded with wins over Cal Lutheran and Westminster College of Utah before starting conference play with three consecutive wins.
Everything appeared to be running smoothly until Cal Poly San Luis Obispo tied the Matadors on Oct. 17 at North Campus Stadium.
"The loss to Westmont was a low but it wasn't that big of a deal because it wasn't in conference," Ass'ad said. "The tie at home woke us up. The players realized that if we lost another point or a game, we could lose the conference. It made us come together."
The Matadors beat Cal State Dominguez Hills to close out the first half of conference play and Ass'ad decided to tinker with his lineup to get a more explosive combination.
Ass'ad settled on changes that included moving Juan Florez from midfield to forward and Batt from forward to midfield. Lee, an All-American sweeper in 1986, was moved to midfield and Willie Lopez took over full time as goalkeeper.
Matador opponents felt the impact immediately.
CSUN won its last five conference games, outscoring opponents, 32-4. The Matadors all but clinched the conference title by whipping San Luis Obispo on the road, 8-1.
Enter the playoffs. Top-ranked CSUN met two-time defending national champion Seattle Pacific, which had eliminated the Matadors the previous two years.
"The season as a whole was challenging," Ass'ad said. "But beating Seattle Pacific was a challenge in itself."
Playing before a record crowd of 3,841 at North Campus Stadium, CSUN shut out Seattle Pacific, 1-0, on a goal by Florez.
The Matadors advanced to the Final Four and defeated second-ranked Tampa, 3-0, on goals by Lee, Batt and Steve Lazarus.
The season ended, however, with the Matadors suffering their first shutout of the season against Southern Connecticut.
Next year, Lazarus returns for his senior season and might be shifted from fullback to forward where he would team with Florez. Andy Torres will be a senior midfielder and Jim Hofferber, a freshman, will return to help anchor the defense.
"It was an enjoyable, fulfilling and satisfying year," Ass'ad said. "Ending the season again with a loss is definitely a low point, but we'll start working on things in the spring semester to see if we can change that next year."