There was a lot of hype surrounding the Cal Poly/UCSB showdown this past Friday. The game lived up to it.
In front of a crowd of 11,075 raucous fans and a national television audience, the two Central Coast rivals played over 100 minutes of fast-paced, intense back and forth soccer. But after two 45-minute halves and a 10-minute overtime period, the game was still scoreless. That changed rather quickly.
Just 10 seconds into the decisive second overtime period, senior forward Chris Pontius took a cross from junior forward David Walker and buried it into the left side of the net. What followed was surreal.
The sold-out Alex G. Spanos Stadium went completely quiet, except for the small contingent of a few dozen screaming Gaucho Locos. Pontius sprinted past the Mustang student section, shirt in hand, outrunning his teammates who were trying to mob him in celebration. Blue and yellow smoke flares went off in the crowd, and the yellow one was eventually tossed onto the field. Santa Barbara Assistant Coach Greg Wilson may or may not have done the Lambeau Leap into the Locos. It was not your average Big West road game.
Pontius tried his best to describe it: “It was like… you’re on cloud nine,” said the Gauchos’ leading goal-scorer and co-captain. “It’s something that you dream about.”
The game had been anticipated for a number of reasons. First of all, the two games last year between the squads resulted in the Big West attendance record being broken twice. First the Mustangs broke it by bringing 7,143 in their 2-1 upset of the Gauchos, and then UCSB returned the favor by totaling 8,102 fans and winning 3-1 in the rematch at Harder Stadium. This year, both teams were near the top of the Big West standings and had a lot riding on the game. The significance was not lost on Cal Poly’s fans, who came out in huge numbers to rewrite the record books once more – this time by almost 3,000 fans.
“It’s awesome for the Big West,” Walker said. “It shows how much the league is growing.”
It probably feels a little less “awesome” for the Mustang faithful. Despite having a man advantage from the 87th minute on due to UCSB’s freshman midfielder Michael Tetteh receiving a red card, the Mustangs were unable to find the back of the net at any point in the contest. While both squads had numerous chances to score, Santa Barbara’s defense held tough throughout and came away with their second shutout of the season.
“Overall, I really was proud of our defensive effort,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “We were very gritty, tough and defended well for each other.”
There were very few dangerous shots from either team during the match, but the game was incredibly fast-paced and felt like both teams were just on the verge of breaking through. Mustang keeper Eric Branagan-Franco made 10 saves, but was very rarely forced to do anything special. Meanwhile, UCSB freshman goalie Kristopher Minton recorded the first shutout of his career, but only had to make four saves in the process.
The Mustangs’ had their best opportunities early on in the match, including an apparent 9th minute goal from freshman attacker Wes Feighner. The referee had blown his whistle well before Feighner put the ball into the net though, as the Mustang forward had given a hard two-handed shove to Santa Barbara’s defender in order to get possession.
The next great chance in the game was in the 22nd minute, when Cal Poly sophomore forward David Zamora rocketed a header just inches above the UCSB crossbar.
The Gauchos had some excellent chances as well, especially in the later moments of the game. At one point in the 87th minute, right before Santa Barbara fell to 10 men, midfielder Luis Silva blasted a shot from the top of the box after a corner kick. Unfortunately for the freshman, and the Gauchos, a Cal Poly defender was playing at the post position and knocked it away before it crossed the goal line.
The first overtime came and went without too many chances for either team, but the second extra period was where things finally changed. During the intermission, several Cal Poly fans began throwing things on the field, in the direction of Minton. Minton was furious, and held up a large bottle that had been hurled at him toward the referee. After several minutes of delay, featuring Gaucho players and coaches alike expressing their displeasure to the officials, the second overtime period finally began. While the Gauchos came out fired-up, the Mustang defense may have been a little flat-footed, allowing Walker to get to the corner and find a relatively unmarked Pontius for the win.
The Gauchos ended up out-shooting the Mustangs 20-16, but the more telling statistic was UCSB’s 11 shots on goal. Cal Poly only mustered four.
Santa Barbara can take pride in a hard-fought victory, especially because Alex G. Spanos Stadium is no easy place to play. In the Mustangs’ previous 16 home contests, they had only lost one game.
“I was really happy for the players,” Vom Steeg said. “It’s always great when you get rewarded with the win… and that doesn’t always happen.”
After the Gaucho victory, both teams’ records now stand at 8-4-2 on the season. However, UCSB leads the Cal Poly in conference, boasting a 3-1-1 Big West record to the Mustangs 3-2-0 mark. With half the Big West season over, only three points separate the top four teams. UC Davis leads the way with 11, while UCSB has 10, Cal Poly has nine, and Cal State Northridge has eight. However, the Aggies have had six conference games to accumulate points, but Cal Poly and Santa Barbara have only had five. Northridge, meanwhile, has only played four Big West games and thus is right in the thick of things as well.
There is no doubt it is going to be a competitive race to the finish in the Big West, especially with so much riding on the line. For the first time ever, the conference will be hosting a tournament at season’s end, with the winner getting a guaranteed spot in the NCAA playoffs. Whoever wins the Big West regular season gets the huge advantage of hosting that tournament.
The Gauchos’ next challenge lies on the road at Cal State Fullerton. While the Titans may be last in the conference, they actually battled to a tie with UC Davis last week and were 24 seconds away from getting the same result against Cal State Northridge.
Fullerton’s always a tough place to play for us,” Pontius said. “We need to be solid in the back. That’s the main thing we’re going to focus on this week.
“It’s an important game, it can put us in first place in the Big West, there’s no way we’re going to look past it.”
While, certainly focusing on the game in front of him, Vom Steeg is optimistic about this squad and its future.
“Our best soccer is right in front of us,” the two-time NSCAA National Coach of the Year said. “Our sights are always on something bigger. We have to keep getting better every game.”