Gaucho soccer did something it has never done before on Saturday night: capturing its first-ever Big West Tournament Championship in a 3-1 victory over Cal State Fullerton.
“We’ve wanted that all season,” senior defender Michael Boxall. “It’s just a stepping stone to the bigger goal, but it’s a great feeling. To win our first big west tournament championship, I don’t know what to say.”
[media-credit name=”Daniel Wade” align=”alignleft” width=”230″][/media-credit]Boxall is one of a handful of players who has been at UCSB long enough to have experienced the squad’s two previous losses in the conference tournament’s final round, both times to UC Irvine. The fourth-seeded Titans took care of that problem with a 2-1 upset win at Irvine last week. That victory handed the Gauchos the luxury of playing at their home field on Saturday, where they outhustled Fullerton for 90 minutes in a match that was never close.
“I’m very excited for our players tonight,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “We’ve been 0-2 [in the conference tournament finals], so to finally get that game and enjoy it with our fans — that was great.”
The Gauchos struck early and often, tallying a pair of first half goals. Junior midfielder Danny Barrera took a ball from sophomore Nic Ryan in the 19th minute, slipping it past Fullerton’s keeper low and left to put UCSB on the board first, 1-0. Just three minutes later, junior midfielder Luis Silva would add the eventual game winner with an unassisted goal off his own deflected corner to put his team up by two, sending the 4,613 spectators in attendance into a frenzy.
“We wanted to take it last year, but unfortunately we didn’t,” Silva said. “We had another chance last night and we did what we had to do. It feels good, but I couldn’t have done it without the team. It’s a group thing; I’m glad we did it together.”
Silva’s goal, coupled with three shots on goal and four overall, earned him Big West Tournament MVP honors, but Silva’s red-hot foot was all part of a Gaucho trend that has been building all season long. Vom Steeg’s team has outshot its opponent in every match this season, culminating in 15 shots on goal on Saturday which ties a season-high.
Fullerton, on the other hand, put up just eight shots overall. Its only goal came in the 27th minute, when midfielder Kevin Venegas bent in a cross, which defender Jesse Escalante headed past the outstretched arms of UCSB’s senior goalkeeper Sam Hayden.
One common theme throughout the match was its physical nature. Eight yellow cards were handed out over the course of the match, with each team receiving four. Outside of the cards, Saturday’s match was full of pushes and shoves on both sides of the ball.
“The bottom line is that Fullerton needed to win that game to make it to the tournament,” Vom Steeg said. “Anytime you’re playing a team and it could be their last game, you’re going to get everything. That’s the way it’s going to be all the way out.”
Boxall, who stands at 6’2” and weighs 200 pounds, has seen and given his fair share of elbows this season, with last night being no exception.
“I love it when it gets physical; that’s the way I play,” Boxall said. “I’ve yet to come across someone who can out-physical me. If they like to play that way, it’s playing into our hands and to our strengths.”
With the win, the Gauchos earned an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, which begins on Nov. 18. Though UCSB would likely have received a spot in the 48-team tournament regardless of Saturday’s result, the win improves the team’s chances for an early-round home game. Gaucho players and coaches will discover their fate today, when the tournament selection takes place on ESPNU.
These Gauchos are a very different team from the ones who took the field in September, coming out of the gates with a 0-2-2 record before rattling off 13 wins in its last 16 games to close out the season at 13-4-3 overall. Now, their focus shifts forward
“Like I said from the beginning, I like this group,” Vom Steeg said. “All we know is our name is going to come up [on Monday’s selection show]. That’s all you can really do at this stage, is see who we’re going to play. Hopefully, we’ll get a home game, and we’ll go from there.”
For a team that is preparing for its ninth-consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, Saturday’s win was little more than a warm-up for the real goal: another national title.
“[The win over Fullerton] gives us a little boost, but we can’t get too confident, because we don’t know who we’re going play next or their style,” Silva said. “It’s playoffs now and we have to take it one game at a time.”
Monday’s selection show begins at 1:30 p.m. when the team will host a viewing party in the Intercollegiate Athletics Building to find out who will be its first-round opponent.