SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Sacramento State's second season in Big West Conference play will start with a bang this week as the Hornets (2-3-3) will host No. 6 Cal State Northridge (8-1-0) at 4 p.m. Friday and No. 25 UC Irvine (5-2-2) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Hornet Field.
The matches will be the first time in program history that the Hornets will play consecutive ranked opponents. At No. 6 in the nation, Cal State Northridge will be the highest ranked team to play at Hornet Field since No. 2 New Mexico visited in 2005.
"The whole preseason we've played some pretty tough teams but this is the first ranked team we'll play and opening conference play it's a whole new game," said freshman defender Preston Davis before his first Big West match. "It will be a good test for us. Having a nice home crowd and atmosphere would really pump all of us up and help us play the best we can."
Davis is one of 14 newcomers to the Hornet program this season that will play both their first Big West opponent and first ranked team on Friday. Cal State Northridge, the defending Big West Champion, has been ranked as high as No. 3 in the county this season in the NSCAA poll, and its only loss came against No. 10 UCLA.
The Hornets will not be intimidated, however, as the squad topped the Matadors 1-0 in Northridge last season. After a sometimes frustrating but mostly competitive non-conference portion of the 2013 season, the veterans on the Hornet roster are ready to start anew in the ultra competitive Big West Conference.
"I'm super excited," senior midfielder Gabe Silveira said. "Especially after the way the first half of the season went it's nice to get a fresh start. We have a lot of young guys now and a lot of healthy guys so I think injuries won't be as big of an issue as it was last year (in Big West play)."
Silveira and the Hornets opened with a 4-0-1 record in the Big West last season, but injuries were a key factor as the side went 1-4-0 over the second half of league play and narrowly missed out on the Big West Tournament. Starting strong and maintaining consistent play will necessitate a Hornet run to a Big West crown this season.
Sacramento State gained some momentum entering the conference season with a thrilling 1-0 overtime victory at UNLV on Saturday. Junior Chimdum Mez finished a cross from senior Isaac Ikyurav for the golden goal in the 94th minute as the Hornets ended the non-conference season by defeating the Rebels for the second consecutive year.
The match reached overtime due in large part to 10 saves from senior goalkeeper Cesar Castillo, who has been superb this season in giving his team a chance to win. Castillo leads the Big West with 53 saves - 20 more than the second highest total - and ranks 5th in all of NCAA Division-I with 6.63 saves per game. His numbers are outstanding, but they are in part a result of the Hornets having allowed more shots on goal than any other conference team.
"It's a positive to be making all those saves but it also shows that we need to work on things defensively and not let so many shots be taken," Castillo said. "Coming back home is always good, and playing No. 6 Northridge will be a good test for us to see what we can do. (Beating UNLV) was definitely motivational to kick start this week and getting us prepared for the Big West Conference."
Cal State Northridge opened the season at 7-0-0, including a win at then-No. 9 New Mexico. The Matadors, who are 7-0-3 in their last 10 Big West openers and have outscored their opposition 12-1 in the last five, have tallied 23 goals through nine matches. Junior Sagi Lev-Ari is tied for the Big West lead and tied for third in the country with eight goals this season.
UC Irvine cracked the top-25 this week after a 3-0 win last weekend at CSU Bakersfield. The Anteaters also have road wins this season over No. 17 Louisville and No. 10 UCLA as the squad has gone 3-1-1 in away matches. Senior Enrique Cardenas ranks third in the Big West with 13 points (five goals, three assists) and the Anteaters have allowed just eight goals this season. Sacramento State is 5-5-2 all-time against UC Irvine and was won the last two meetings.
Friday's match will be a Green Army game with Herky's PK Shootout and a chance for Green Army members to win an iPod.