Al Mistri had spent all season preparing for everything, but the one thing he did not prepare for was happening now.
The celebrating Cal State Fullerton soccer players, leaping up and down, screaming and waving, now headed toward him. And as quickly as you can shout, "Final Four, baby!", Mistri was up on their shoulders, being carried off the rain-soaked field, under the trees, past the umbrellas, toward one of the biggest weeks of soccer ever at Fullerton.
"Final Four, baby!" several players screamed. "Final Four, bay-BEE!"
The Titans, getting peskier by the week, added another chapter to their most unlikely of seasons. By defeating San Francisco, 1-0, in an NCAA men's soccer tournament quarterfinal game, the Titans earned their first trip to the Final Four in front of a numb, standing-room only crowd of more than 3,000 at Negoesco Stadium.
"This is what we live for," said goalkeeper Mike Ammann, who was credited with three saves and was perfect the entire evening. "(Mistri) deserves this. People don't give him the credit he deserves.
"That man is unbelievable."
A few steps away, Eddie Soto, nearly dry now from the steady rain that didn't let up until early in the second half, echoed the sentiments of his goalkeeper.
"Let (Mistri) have his time in the light," said Soto, credited with an assist on the lone goal. "He deserves it. I'm glad our team could help bring this to him."
Fullerton scored 32 minutes in, when forward Mark Vaught nudged a ball up and over Don goalkeeper Scott Thompson, who had come out to the top of the keeper's box.
From there, the Titans--who three weeks ago were skeptical as to whether they would even receive an at-large berth--were forced to tighten their defense. Time after time in the second half, as the clock ticked closer to their expiration date, the Dons (13-4-4) attacked. Each time, the Titans turned them away--much to the delight of one busload of Titan followers who had made the trip up on Saturday afternoon.
"All we needed was a chance, you know," Soto said. "That's all we've been saying all year."
And given their chance, the Titans have stormed the throne room. They have won three consecutive road games in this tournament--at Fresno State for the first time since Mistri took over the Fullerton program in 1981, at San Diego for the first time since 1982 and now, at San Francisco for the first time. The Titans were 0-10-1 against the Dons.
But forget the odds.
"If ever a game plan was executed without a problem, this was it," Mistri said. "Bob Ammann (assistant coach) came back last week and said we've got to play drop-back defense, and they were totally unprepared for that."
Said Mike Ammann: "It worked to a T. Everything he told us, they did. It was incredible."
So the Titans (16-6) will return home today and await the outcome of this morning's Air Force-South Carolina game. They get the winner Friday at Davidson College in North Carolina.