IRVINE — At halftime Thursday, The Master’s University men’s soccer team felt as well as could be expected.
The Mustangs scored one of the fastest goals in Golden State Athletic Conference tournament history. They played a dangerous Arizona Christian team to a halftime tie. They planned to have the night’s wind storm at their back over the final 45 minutes.
“We did what we needed to do,” said TMU coach Jim Rickard. “We were on them like crazy.”
The feeling after what became a 2-1 loss in a GSAC semifinal at Orange County Great Park was of a different sort.
“Gutted,” said senior Benji Tembo. “I really believed we could go through.”
The Mustangs (14-5) knew they needed to win Thursday to keep alive hope of advancing to their first NAIA national tournament since 2009. And the night got off to a promising — and lighting fast — start.
TMU’s opening possession ended with Tembo sliding a pass to Trevor Mangan, who drilled it into the net for his team-leading 11th goal.
Sixteen seconds, and Master’s held a 1-0 lead.
“It was the perfect start for a semifinal,” said Tembo, whose team played its best soccer of the season over the final month.
Master’s won five straight games to close out the regular season, earning a first-round bye in the GSAC tournament in the process. As far as conference standings, the Mustangs finished one point behind Vanguard — the GSAC champion and recipient of an automatic spot in the NAIA’s final 16.
Still, TMU was positioned to return to the postseason. If Master’s won its semifinal Thursday and Vanguard won its semifinal later in the evening, the Mustangs would claim the GSAC’s second automat bid to nationals.
It wasn’t to be.
Arizona Christian scored its first goal on a wind-aided corner kick, the ball bending inside the far post in the 34th minute. ACU’s second goal came in more dramatic fashion.
In the 80th minute, Lukas Macho launched a free kick from 30 yards out and the ball bounced unhindered over the line.
Master’s outshot ACU 18-10. The Firestorm managed two shots on goal in a game that Tembo described as a “weird.”
Rickard saw it as playoff soccer.
“That stuff happens,” he said.
The Mustangs reached this stage by playing with greater consistency over the regular season’s final month.
After back-to-back conference losses on Sept. 29 and Oct. 4 — the first a 3-1 setback at the hands of ACU — Master’s beat then-No. 16 Menlo on the road before going on to win its next four.
The Mustangs are expected to return All-GSAC picks Luis Garcia Sosa (a midfielder who tallied nine goals and 11 assists this season) and Justin Ikeora, a key defender.
Master’s will have to replace Tembo, Mangan and defender Cameron Molyneux, one of the program’s best-ever one-year players. Molyneux transferred to Master’s from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo as a grad student and shored up TMU’s back line with physicality and poise on ball.
Tembo’s production will be the hardest to do without.
His 39 career goals tie him with fellow Malawi native Humphrey Mahowa for 10th on TMU’s all-time list.