From the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight in 2011 to shocking national title contenders USC earlier this year, life has never been dull for Long Beach State University under head coach Mauricio Ingrassia. Long the most consistent program in the Big West Conference, the 49ers will be looking to upset the national order again this Saturday as they travel to Provo, Utah to take on the highly acclaimed BYU Cougars.
Halfway through the 2016 season, Long Beach State has a 4-4-1 record that may seem pedestrian at first glance but becomes worthy of respect when you consider the calibre of opponent the 49ers have faced in the first five weeks of the season.
From major conference powerhouses like USC and Penn State to mid-major stalwarts like San Diego State, Ingrassia’s side has run the gauntlet through one of the nation’s toughest non-conference slates overall.
That slate ends on Saturday, when LBSU tries to become just the second team all season to topple a BYU side that has looked dominant for much of 2016. But Ingrassia’s side is used to such challenges, having competed valiantly with the likes of UCLA and Penn State earlier this year.
An upset over the Cougars would likely give LBSU two wins over RPI Top 25 teams come Selection Monday, giving them a great case at an at-large bid if needed if they were to end up on the bubble.
However, despite their brutal non-conference schedule, Saturday still represents a new challenge for the 49ers. LBSU opened up the 2016 season with eight straight matches at home before an 'away' game at nearby UCLA last Sunday.
Other than the mid-October trip to Hawaii, Saturday’s excursion to Provo will be the furthest LBSU travels from home in the regular season. Ingrassia could have hardly asked for a more difficult trip for his first true road test of the 2016 season.
He’ll be hoping that a senior class short on quantity but heavy on quality will be the difference on Saturday as LBSU pursues one of the biggest wins in program history. The head coach of the 49ers summed up his senior class in glowing words as “good soccer players, great people, great leaders, and very caring individuals”.
Said senior class boasts difference makers on both the offensive side of the ball as well as defensively. Ingrassia notes that his senior class has helped set the tone for the program as “road warriors…that can take on adversity,” that comes with having to travel into hostile territory like LBSU faces on Saturday night.
Midfielder Mimi Rangel is the player that steers the ship offensively for Long Beach State, making the attack tick. The Chino native is already well on her way to becoming not just one of LBSU’s best players ever but one of the best ever in the Big West Conference, likely to join the rarefied air of conference players to have won All-Big West First Team honors in all four seasons of her career after this senior season.
While Rangel has scored just three goals this year, her contributions both on and off the stat sheet are immeasurable for Ingrassia’s side.
Defensively, LBSU has a pair of veteran anchors on the backline and in goal. The tenacious Mimi Akaogi plays much bigger than her 5-foot-1 frame and is second on the club in minutes played and will be needed in a big way on Saturday to stop a BYU offense that just scored seven goals against Denver.
Akaogi can play anywhere on the backline and even in midfield and might need to be everywhere on the pitch in Provo on Saturday for LBSU.
The key might be goalkeeper Ashton McKeown, one of the best in the nation when healthy and on form. Injuries cost McKeown a handful of matches last season, and they’ve forced her out for three games this year, though the Californian has made a successful return to the lineup in the past two matches.
McKeown is no stranger to overcoming adversity though, losing her starting role early in her freshman season before rebounding one year later to win league Goalkeeper of the Year honors.
It’s highly likely that McKeown, a keeper that plays much bigger than listed 5’9” size, will need to have a huge night in goal if LBSU is to pull off the upset in Provo.
Though the seniors capture most of the headlines for Long Beach State, the next generation of stars for the 49ers has been making itself known through the first half of the 2016 season. The brightest of those stars in the eyes of many has been French youth international Chloe Froment, who already looks like a potential cornerstone for LBSU at center-back based on her performances in her first season with the club.
The story of Froment’s recruitment to Long Beach is one of fortuitous breaks and great fortune for Ingrassia’s side, with the manager hopping on a flight to France on a whim for a short notice recruiting opportunity at the famous Clairefontaine Training Center.
Froment was a cut above many of the other prospects on display but spoke no English and due to her partial qualifier status had to wait until the Spring of 2016 to even play exhibitions with LBSU despite moving to California to attend the university in the Spring of 2015.
Like many of the diamonds in the rough that have come through Long Beach, Froment has been a revelation with the right tutelage and already looks like a potential star in a conference that has cranked out quality players on a consistent basis. Froment and the rest of her LBSU teammates play in one of the nation’s most balanced conferences, the Big West, a league with eight California schools (and Hawaii) which contributes to a passionate league season every year.
Ingrassia and his staff share a belief that “tradition is the best motivator,” and that the weight of expectation from knowing that every recruiting class at LBSU since Ingrassia arrived has played in the NCAA Tournament has continued to spur the program on to new heights in the Big West and beyond.
But before Big West play, for Long Beach to pull off the upset on Saturday, Ingrassia emphasized that his side needs to “stay compact, communicating with each other, and staying in control,” in an environment that makes that a challenge for anyone that steps onto the pitch against BYU. But Ingrassia and his staff has built a squad identity that focuses on pressing, possession, and bravery which has reaped dividends thus far for the Beach.
Those qualities have already led to one monumental upset against USC earlier this season and could, with a little luck and a lot of skill, lead to another against the Cougars in Provo.
Long Beach State travels to Provo, Utah to play BYU at 10:00 PM EST on Saturday.