Just last Saturday, the UCSB women’s lacrosse team had a chance to do the impossible. Following the “Cinderella Story” script set by underdogs of the past, the Gauchos upset one top ranked-team after another on their way to the Women’s Collegiate Lacrosse Associates National Championship game. However, they came up just one win short, falling to the undefeated No. 1 Colorado State Rams in the final by a score of 14-4.
“[Colorado State is] just a really high-pressure team and it’s really hard to keep up with them,” senior attacker Katie Mitchell said. “They’ve been undefeated all season and they’re a pretty experienced nationals team. The fact that they run a really high-pressure game wore us down.”
The No. 11 Gauchos upset No. 6 Virginia, No. 3 Georgia and No. 2 BYU on their way to playing CSU for the national championship. UCSB was fortunate enough to make the tournament at all, earning the 16th and final spot after being awarded the final tournament bid. With their season extended, the Gauchos were happy just to be able to play.
“We just went in there having nothing to lose, and we all just really wanted it each and every game,” junior midfielder Blair Evans said. “That’s what made the biggest difference, just going out there and leaving everything out on the field.”
After making it to the their first ever national championship game, the Gauchos came out playing the Rams close, only trailing 3-2 after 12 minutes. As the game wore on though, they were outmatched by an intense Colorado State team which had accumulated a 21-0 overall record to that point. UCSB fell behind 10-3 at the half and was unable to pull off a miraculous comeback as seen in their previous game against BYU.
“We were too tentative on offense,” Head Coach Paul Ramsey said. “There was no way we were going to dominate them. We needed to keep it close and score some goals early in the first half, and we didn’t do that.”
While they were the surprise team of the tournament, the Gauchos were a surprise even to themselves from the beginning of the year.
“We definitely thought that this was going to be a rebuilding year because we had lost seven starters and we had a lot of new freshmen,” Evans said. “You could tell we weren’t all on the same page; we didn’t have the same chemistry on the field as last year, but we just worked really hard and it all came together at the perfect time, right at the end of the season.”
The Gauchos finished the season at 16-8 overall and needed to do well in their conference tournament if they were going to make it to the national championship tournament. They finished in fourth place after losing to Santa Clara 14-13, putting their tournament hopes in jeopardy.
With eight teams already having automatically advanced to the tournament, the Gauchos needed to be chosen with one of the eight at-large bids in order to make it.
“We had three days where we’re like ‘Oh geez,’ is it going to be us?” Ramsey said. “I’m sitting there waiting for travel planning and [the players] are sitting there thinking ‘Is our season over? Do we get to play together some more?’”
Despite not finishing as one of the top teams in their conference, the Gauchos’ impressive performances against top-ranked teams during the regular season, including a 14-12 victory over BYU in February, earned them the final tournament bid.
“[The team] got really close the last few weeks of the season,” Ramsey said. “They found out they made it and that was the biggest thing. They really came together as a team and wanted to continue their season. It translated into a great performance on the field.”
Once their tournament plans were set, the Gauchos went to work with 10 hard practices to tune up their fundamentals and make sure they were tournament-ready.
“We had really quality practices, sprinting a lot and working really hard on fundamentals,” Evans said. “Everyone really stepped up before nationals; we were playing really hard and not slacking off on anything.”
Entering the tournament against Virginia, not too many people gave UCSB a shot at making much noise. However, facing horrible weather conditions, the Gauchos came out to dominate Virginia with a final score of 13-7 and showed everyone what they were capable of.
“We really proved that we could do anything in any kind of elements,” Evans said. “Our mindset was that we really had nothing to lose. We really came out with a lot of heart, played our game and never let them catch up.”
With one upset behind them, UCSB stayed calm and continued to take it one game at a time. Playing a Georgia team known for throwing its opponents off with its unorthodox defense, the Gauchos stuck to their game plan and almost doubled the Bulldogs score with a final of 11-6.
“Our whole mindset was that just getting one upset wasn’t going to be enough,” Mitchell said. ”We wanted to make history and make it all the way to the championship.”
The semifinal game against BYU proved to be the game of the tournament for the young Gaucho squad. Trailing 8-3 at the half, UCSB came storming out of the second half by scoring three quick goals and keeping the game close until the end.
Tied 11-11 with less than thirty seconds left, sophomore attacker Lindsay Alex found Mitchell for the game-winning goal, catapulting the Gauchos into the national championship game.
“We had a pretty crappy first half, but by the time we got to the BYU game, everybody realized anything was possible,” Ramsey said. “We regrouped and made some good adjustments at halftime, and just came out and went for it in the second half. We made it happen for ourselves.”
Following their motto, “Started from the bottom, now we’re here,” UCSB let the pressure go and proved that any team can win on any given day.
“We came out with the energy and heart that you need to survive in the national championship, and I think we proved that we could hang,” Evans said. “We had a mentality that there was nothing to lose, to just give everything we’ve got because this might be the last game.”
The Gauchos fell just one win short of their ultimate goal of winning the national championship, but their journey was one to remember. The poise and confidence that the young team showed is surely a sign that there will be more to come in the near future.
This article is an online exclusive and did not appear in the print edition of The Daily Nexus.
Photo courtesy of Blair Evans.