Youth and inexperience can be undesirable traits for a sports team, but in the case of UCSB’s women’s soccer team, they are two valuable assets.
Throughout this season, the Gauchos have emerged with young talent ready for the big moment. Fostering a roster of 19 underclassmen and 13 freshmen, the team has proven why it should be considered an elite contender in the Big West.
“Oftentimes, it takes a few months or even years for a freshman to adjust to college soccer, but our [new players] just came in this season ready to make the adjustment immediately,” senior goalkeeper Beth Ritter said.
Possessing a conference-best five wins and one loss, Santa Barbara’s success can be accredited to a mixture of pure potential, senior leadership and team chemistry. With this combination, the Gauchos undoubtedly deserve their recent clinching of a spot in the Big West Tournament.
“We’re very optimistic about our program in no small part because of this group of kids,” Head Coach Paul Stumpf said. “[Our] freshmen have not been intimidated by this collegiate environment … and what we’re asking them to do in very short order has been a pleasant surprise for us.”
After losing six seniors last year and finishing the season with an overall record of 8-9-2, 2-6 in the Big West, a main focus for Stumpf heading into the off-season was rebuilding. Collaborating with Assistant Head Coach Austin Risenhoover, the two collected arguably one of the best recruiting classes in the Big West with 13 true freshmen.
“We were fortunate enough to draft a recruiting class of young girls who can compete at such a high level,” Risenhoover said.
Whether in overtime or late-game situations, the Gauchos’ ability to persevere has influenced Stumpf and Risenhoover, increasing their confidence in the team’s progression to the big stage and what the future holds for them.
“What we’re going to benefit down the road from in these players is their experience,” Stumpf said. “The majority [of the team] are only freshmen, and after next season, they will still have two full years to play.”
Among this cluster of underclassmen lies a centerpiece in freshman forward Mallory Hromatko. The first-year standout has risen to the spotlight this season, leading the Gauchos with nine goals and 22 points. It is evident that the Danville, CA native has evolved into an offensive catalyst for UCSB as her nine scores rank third in the Big West, the most among any other freshman.
“It’s Mallory’s ability to work well with her teammates that’s been such a strength for her,” Risenhoover said. “Learning that forward position from older players like Amanda Ball has allowed Mallory to get comfortable on offense and naturally let her talents speak for itself.”
In each of the team’s 12 matches, Hromatko has managed to score or assist. The freshman striker has been a key ingredient all season, propelling her team to two four-game winning streaks and an unbeaten stretch of six games starting in late August.
“You can tell that [Mallory] trusts her teammates, and it’s translated to her success on the field,” Risenhoover said.
Hromatko’s efforts have not gone unnoticed, earning herself multiple nominations and her first ever Big West Player of the Week Honors last weekend after scoring two clutch goals against UC Riverside and UC Irvine.
With only three seniors on the team, forward Angelisa Cortez and forward Savannah Francis have embraced and come to understand their roles as veterans and have taken this young squad under their wings. While their minutes on the field have trimmed down, this is a sacrifice they are willing to make.
“Savannah and Angelisa have been great cheerleaders on and off the field for this young unit, especially during their injuries,” Risenhoover said. “They both want what’s best for the team and are willing to do whatever it takes to get to that next level.”
Following their early season injuries, Cortez and Francis have been consistent in the Gauchos’ second unit. Combined, the two have tallied a goal and two assists. Ignoring their stat lines, it is the leadership of these upperclassmen that has alluded to their success. This is where senior goalkeeper Beth Ritter comes in.
“Beth has been amazing this year for us,” Risenhoover said. “Recovering from a tough injury and having [junior goalie] Jacq Caginia replace her for a couple games really added fuel to her fire, and it’s rubbed off on her teammates.”
Ritter ranks among the top five goalies in the Big West with only nine goals allowed on the year and a solid .87 goals against average. Ritter’s dominant presence behind goal has taken the pressure off her teammates and granted this young team more opportunities to score.
After an early non-conference skid against respected programs like Saint Mary’s and USF, UCSB has excelled and come into its own as of late. The Gauchos have won five out of their six conference matches, earning three of their five shutouts against Irvine, Hawaii and central coast rival Cal Poly.
With two regular season games remaining on the schedule for Santa Barbara, this team is getting hot at the right time. Developing team chemistry is no easy task, but the seniors have embraced their role in mentoring this new generation of younger players.
“We have four to six freshmen and seven to eight underclassmen starting every game this season for us,” Ritter said. “This is an exciting stat because it shows the incredibly bright future this program has in store.”
As the three seniors finish their mark on the year, this young team has all the intangibles for a promising future. Now the question is: Are their talents enough for a Big West title?
“All of our players have bought in to our principles of passion, accountability and commitment,” Stumpf said. “We made it this far in conference with these values; now it’s time to see how far we can go.”
A version of this article appeared on page 17 of October 29, 2015’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.