D-I College Championships 2024: Cal Poly SLO Complete Improbable Comeback Over UNC (Men’s Semifinal Recap)

Cal Poly SLO scored five goals in a row to knock off UNC in an instant classic

Cal Poly SLO’s Calvin Brown steps out to unfurl a flick during pool play at the 2024 D-I College Championships. Photo: Sam Hotaling – UltiPhotos.com

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The men’s division will have a new title winner for the first time since 2019. Three time defending champions #3 UNC Darkside fell 15-13 in a rainy semifinal to #6 Cal Poly SLO SLOCORE.

Rain and wind pounded the turf at the Redden Soccer Park as spectators struggled to find shelter from the elements, but couldn’t stay away from the meaningful action on the field. UNC started the game as the more focused and composed outfit. Execution miscues from SLO during their first two points handed Darkside unforced break opportunities, and UNC converted to build a 3-0 lead. As SLO were dropping discs and leading throws to the wrong spaces, Darkside were catching second-effort discs and keeping possession with their practiced small ball sets. Dylan Hawkins made two tough grabs on tipped discs to help UNC build a 6-2 lead. “The first half was terrible,” SLO’s Alex Nelson admitted after the game.

Darkside would not have said their first half was particularly easy, but they had a lead to show for their efforts. “It’s hard when the weather and wind are affecting our throws,” UNC’s Rutledge Smith said. “It affects our groove. It makes us play a bit more hesitant to throw some things and defenses kind of collapse and force us into windows that they want. Ultimately both teams have to deal with it. We knew it was going to be a sloppy game.”

Between the wind, the rain, the growing collection of spectators on the sideline, and the high stakes nature of the game, playing in this semifinal was unlike anything these players experienced so far this season. With their decade of experience at this level, UNC handled the external factors better than SLO and went into halftime with an 8-4 lead.

“Central California, SLO, is not super rainy or super windy,” Nelson said. “We get a little bit of wind, but nothing like this. They had a poachy defense; they were playing us really well. Our offense this whole weekend was reliant on our deep balls and working it. We had a lot of execution errors.” The SLO offense looked, in a word, frantic. Windows available on Friday and Saturday were suddenly taken away, and it took time to adjust to changing conditions. SLO tried to speed up their process, thinking quick disc movement could make up for careful decision making. Instead, it led to rushed turnovers and ineffective offense.

Despite the large deficit, SLO never let their energy dip. Garrett Bush, Keaton Orser, and Nelson were working the sidelines, starting cheers, and keeping the entire team engaged.

“We’ve been in a lot of games this season where we’ve gone down,” Bush said. “We started the season undefeated and that was cool, but we started losing some games and that taught us a lot. One of the things I learned is that being loud and annoying and obnoxious on the sideline does a lot because it makes noise that is friendly noise and not enemy noise. I like to call it creating our own home court advantage. When you’re just hearing the other team’s cheers, it’s frustrating and demoralizing, and it’s not as comfortable to play … during a game the best way that I can contribute to the team and help us win is through my presence on the sideline.” Sidelined by a lingering injury, Bush has not been able to take the field for SLO this season, but his infectious energy and commitment to the team absolutely contributes to ‘CORE’s success.

“We’re a very goofy team,” Nelson added. “We have a lot of wacky energy that we like to carry through into our game. That fires us up and gives us energy. So at halftime we were really trying to stay up, take care of ourselves … there’s a lot of game left. The game’s not over until the clock hits zero or someone gets to 15, and neither of those things were the case so we had to keep fighting, find our composure, and I think we did that.”

They would, eventually, but first Darkside continued to dominate as they brought the score to 12-8. Holding a four goal cushion with just three goals needed for a win, UNC was as comfortable as one can be after spending several hours chasing a piece of plastic around a mud pit in driving rain. But ‘CORE continued to believe a comeback was possible.

Taking advantage of a Josh Singleton drop and a reset too high for Rutledge Smith, SLO brought the game to 12-10 and had a golden chance to close the gap to one when Kyle Lew saw an opening over the tangle of players at the front of the end zone and lofted a soft pass right to a waiting Seamus Robinson alone in the backfield. SLO’s earlier mistakes dug them a hole, but this possession could have been the key to the comeback. Naturally, Robinson dropped the unpressured pass and UNC scored to take a 13-10 lead. It just did not feel like SLO’s day.

A less mentally resilient team might have folded. Facing a team with the cache of the Darkside program, several Team USA players, and seemingly the will of the weather-controlling universe, it would have been understandable to chalk up a tough result to a hard fought game in adverse conditions. Instead, Cal Poly SLO began the process to come back once more.

The next sequence of points was a blur of Darkside miscues and SLO successes in a reversal of the opening crescendo to the game. Three Darkside drops and a few throwing decisions the team is sure to review in the offseason gave SLO plenty of opportunity. With little margin for error this late in the game, the Comrades of Radical Energy went radioactive. Nelson and Max Gade each raced downfield to block UNC hucks. Kyle Lew found Gade with a hammer to close the Darkside lead to one. Brown curled a flick to Robinson to tie the game at 13. Alex Nelson bodied out Matt McKnight to catch a huck and give SLO their first lead of the game at 14-13.

Nelson was the hero a few moments later after SLO picked up a UNC drop. Lew found himself without a reset option and lofted a backhand to the soft space along the side of the end zone. Orme looked to be the intended target, but he turned around just in time to see Nelson streaking in from across the field to secure the catch with his back foot in bounds. A thick crowd rushed the field in celebration, happy for SLO and happy that a season full of parity and a tournament full of upsets had one more surprise in store.

Throughout the SLO onslaught, UNC never looked phased. Their message was to, “Stay calm, it’s fun. We all believed we had it,” Smith recounted after the game. “I believed we were going to win the game, and I was not worried about it to be honest. And ultimately, it’s a game of chance and stuff happens and things don’t go your way, but our vibes were good. Vibes were calm. That’s what our mojo’s been. Just trying to stay chill.”

On the other sideline was pure unfiltered joy. SLO advances to the first final in their program’s history. After semifinal appearances in 2019 and 2023 led to disappointing multi-goal exits, the resilience and drive of this year’s team helped SLO advance past their previous ceiling. They’ll face Brown in Monday’s final in a rematch of their double game point win two months ago at Easterns.

While SLO has more of their story to write, UNC’s book is a chapter shorter than expected this season. Lest Darkside get caught up in the first sub-championship season of most of their players’ careers,1 it’s hard to see this season as anything other than a success for Darkside. The team made the semifinal round for an unprecedented 10th consecutive season. To rephrase that, there are current Darkside players who were in elementary school the last time UNC did not advance to Sunday at Nationals. The heart, soul, grit, and determination Darkside showed were befitting of a team with their reputation, and their experience this season should only serve to be a positive lesson for future iterations of the team.

“I’m so proud of our fight,” Smith said. “Every game that we had this year, every game that we had this Nationals, we knew that we believed in ourselves and we believed that we could fight back … Everyone on the outside of our bubble doesn’t want us to win. And doesn’t want us to believe in ourselves, but we believed in ourselves. We fought through so much. Role changes, different teams throwing different stuff at us. We kept fighting it because we knew that we had it in us.

“One thing we emphasized is that every moment is finite,” he continued. “Every practice, every workout, every lift, every throw with a teammate could be your last one. And I think that that’s something we said post game, and that sucks, and for a lot of us that was our last one today. And so treating every one like it’s precious. Treating every moment like it’s finite. Because it is. That’s how you work harder. That’s how you get the most out of every rep, every moment. Be present and savor that. I wish I could go back and do that again. This was my college experience and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

  1. Andrew Li is the only current Darkside player who has played in a Nationals that did not end in a championship 

  1. Alex Rubin
    Alex Rubin

    Alex Rubin started writing for Ultiworld in 2018. He is a graduate of Northwestern University where he played for four years. After a stint in Los Angeles coaching high school and college teams, they moved to Chicago to experience real seasons and eat deep dish pizza. You can reach Alex through e-mail ([email protected]) or Twitter (@arubes14).

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