DAVIDSON, N.C. — Leave it to Al Mistri, Cal State Fullerton's jolly, round soccer coach, to bring a little levity and perspective to a difficult situation.
The Titans' improbable run through the NCAA playoffs had just ended with a 1-0 loss to South Carolina in the national semifinals at Davidson College, but that wasn't about to get Mistri down.
"I'm still going to Disneyland," Mistri said to open his post-game press conference. "After all is said and done, I feel bad for my guys, but this has been a tremendous run, the run of a lifetime, and we're going to be back. Nobody embarrassed us."
Fullerton, which won playoff games at Fresno State, San Diego and San Francisco to advance to the Final Four, was in this one until the end.
An NCAA-record crowd of 10,306 at Richardson Field saw South Carolina (16- 3-4) score on Jamie Posnanski's shot with 8 minutes 7 seconds remaining, but Fullerton (16-7) nearly tied it in the final two minutes.
Titan fullback Demian Brown launched a long pass from midfield toward the penalty box, where Fullerton's Ken Hesse redirected the ball to Eddie Soto, who had slipped behind a defender on the left side.
As Soto settled the ball and prepared to shoot from about 15 yards out, South Carolina goalie David Turner rushed out to cut down the angle, a decision he won't ever regret. Turner smothered Soto's low shot with 1:40 left, and the Titans ran out of time.
"I knew if I stayed on the (goal) line, he would score," said Turner. "I stayed low, kept my hands low and made the save. He hit the ball pretty well."
The Gamecocks will play Virginia at 10:30 a.m. (PST) Sunday for the national championship.
Soto's shot was one of the few legitimate scoring opportunities Fullerton had.
The Titans, who were credited with only seven shots on goal, stuck to their usual game plan, allowing South Carolina to pressure them, hoping to lure the Gamecock fullbacks forward and then create scoring chances with a quick counterattack.
But South Carolina defensemen didn't take the bait--rarely did they even cross midfield in the first half--and Fullerton had trouble mounting any kind of attack.
The Gamecocks increased their offensive pressure in the second half, threatening to score on several occasions, and their persistence finally paid off.
The game-winning goal began with Bill Baumhoff's throw-in, from deep in Titan territory on the left sideline. Baumhoff sent the pass into the penalty box where Greg King, the Gamecocks' 6-foot-3 junior, was able to out-jump Fullerton defenders and flick the ball with his head straight behind him.
The ball landed on Posnanski's left foot, and Posnanski, playing his third game since missing a month because of mononucleosis, one-timed it to the right of diving Fullerton goalie Mike Ammann, who never had a chance.
"That's a set play we have, because Bill is great at the throw-in, and Greg is great in the air," Posnanski said. "The ball landed right at my feet, and I managed to get it by him. At first, I was in shock, then everyone was running around, going crazy. To score in a game like this is an incredible feeling."
On the other end of the emotional spectrum was Titan sophomore Matt Bradbury, a midfielder who had played every minute of every previous game but had to sit out Friday's match because he received his third yellow (warning) card of the tournament--a violation of an NCAA rule--last weekend at San Francisco.
"I just wish I could have been in there to help," said Bradbury, the Titans' second-leading scorer with eight goals and six assists. "I spent the whole game rocking back and forth on the bench, pacing a five-foot area on the sideline, on my knees, on my heels, just trying to think positive."
There were some positives for the Titans. Brown did an outstanding job marking dangerous South Carolina forward Chris Faklaris, who has scored 20 goals this season, and he saved what appeared to be a sure Gamecock goal in the second half.
South Carolina midfielder Sigmar Scheving beat Fullerton's Alfred Partida for a loose ball and angled in from the right side toward Ammann with about 12 1/2 minutes left. But before he could get a shot off, Brown stormed in and knocked the ball over the end line.
Ammann was credited with only one save but helped fend off 10 South Carolina corner kicks and turn away nine shots.
But overall, this was not Fullerton's best performance of the season.
"We didn't get in a groove, and nerves may have had something to do with that," Ammann said. "But we did things well enough to get by. We had some chances. It wasn't a matter of them shutting us down."
The Titans won't leave North Carolina with a national championship trophy, but at least they've gained a good measure of respect.
Fullerton is not a perennial soccer power--heck, the team receives about as much funding from its athletic department ($7,500) as Virginia spends on one scholarship--and several players said they sensed people here were looking down on them, as if they didn't belong.
Friday, they showed they can play with the nation's best.
"They're the most well-balanced opposition we've had this year," South Carolina Coach Mark Berson said. "They have an exceptional goalie, they're solid defensively at the back, and they have great composure at midfield. They're a very good team. They showed why they're in this tournament, why they advanced this far, and I salute them."