IRVINE — The newly created decorative UC Irvine scarves were flying high, as they do around the world, following a victorious performance by the Anteaters' unbeaten women's soccer team Friday night at Anteater Stadium.
But it was forwards Natalia Ledezma and Lexi Kopf who flew first on the field, to make possible a 2-1, come-from-behind triumph over nonconference visitor Hawaii, that helps set the stage for a monumental road trip next weekend.
Ledezma, a sophomore transfer from UCLA, bolted past a Hawaii defender, then darted around a charging keeper to even the score in the 53rd minute.
In the 80th minute, it was Ledezma running onto a pass down the left wing from freshman midfielder Cami Privett, then sending a cross toward a streaking Kopf, that resulted in the game-winner.
Kopf, who displays her eye-catching speed with a series of sprints as hopeful as they are relentless most of the time she is on the pitch, broke free down the middle of the box and beat Hawaii goalkeeper Kanani Taaca to the ball about 10 yards in front. Kopf stuck her right leg up and appeared to get a knee on the ball, directing it past Kanani and into the back of the empty net.
The second-half tallies helped the Anteaters (5-0), ranked No. 14 by the Soccer Coaches Assn. of America, erase a 1-0 halftime deficit, despite controlling play most of the opening 45 minutes.
"We gave up a goal that we were disappointed with," UCI Coach Scott Juniper said of a deftly executed combination between Hawaii's Amber Fuller and Tiana Fujimoto that opened the scoring in the 43rd minute.
Fuller and Fujimoto managed to get behind the UCI back line. Fuller took a pass over the top of the defense and headed it to Fujimoto, who drilled it past a helpless UCI goalkeeper Jennifer Randazzo.
Randazzo later made a punch save off the crossbar and senior All-American defender CoCo Goodson made a sliding save after a miscommunication between Randazzo and a UCI defender left a ball rolling toward a seemingly unprotected net.
UCI finished with an 18-7 advantage in shots and had a number of chances that could have made the margin of victory bigger.
"We'd have preferred to dominate the game a little more, but 5-0 is fantastic and we've got a huge test next weekend," Juniper said.
UCI, which went 19-3-2 last season on its way to the NCAA Sweet 16 in its first NCAA Tournament appearance after claiming the program's first regular-season Big West Conference crown, will venture to the Stanford-Nike Invitational beginning Friday.
The 'Eaters will face No. 16-ranked Santa Clara (3-0-1) on Friday, then square off against No. 2-ranked Stanford (3-0-1) on Sept. 11.
"It's a huge opportunity for our program," Kopf said of the trip to Stanford. "I feel like people still look at us as underdogs, even though we had a really successful season last year. So this is a huge opportunity to play those teams and we're just excited to go our and show them that UC Irvine is a top program."
Kopf, who had six goals as a junior, is making the most of her scoring opportunities this year. All three of her goals in 2011 have been game-winners, including two last weekend in the UC Riverside Tournament that led to national Player of the Week recognition.
Ledezma, who did not score in her debut season at UCLA, now has a team-leading four goals. She posted her first assist by setting up Kopf for the game-winner.
"It was definitely a nice run down the line," Kopf said of Ledezma's play-making ability on the decisive goal. "I think [Ledezma] did the majority of the work and I just happened to make a run down the middle, was in the right place at the right time, and got a leg on it."
Privett's steal just inside midfield triggered the winning sequence, just as senior midfielder Judy Christopher's through ball from near midfield allowed Ledezma to sprint past a retreating defender for the equalizer.
Juniper said a strategic change at halftime (from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3, which allowed the forward line to stretch out the Hawaii defense), as well as his team's recognition of Hawaii's defensive emphasis on the midfield, proved productive.
"They can only take space away from you in some areas of the field," Juniper said of Hawaii's defense. "They were taking a lot of the space in the midfield and giving us the space in behind. You have to recognize it and play it and I think our girls did a great job of reading the game tonight and staying very composed."
It was the first of seven home games for UCI this season and the first game in the cool, oceanic air familiar to their home facility, especially at night.
"It wasn't 110 degrees like it was in Riverside and Texas," Kopf said.
UCI players and coaches hope the scarves will do more than keep UCI fans warm on cool evenings.
"That's a piece of soccer culture from around the world, really," Juniper said. I think it will build. The players are into it and it looked like a few of the fans were into it as well, holding their scarves up. I'd love to finish a game and see hundreds of those scarves up. That will be a real sign that we've got a good soccer culture here."