Despite outshooting Cal State Fullerton 22-5 on Saturday night at Harder Stadium, the No. 15 UCSB men’s soccer team fell 1-0 in the Big West Championship game thanks to junior defender Mitchell Bell’s rebound goal in the 52nd minute.
“I thought it was our best game of the season,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “Our team was well prepared tonight, they were focused, we controlled the game. I’m disappointed for the players but I’m not disappointed with the way we played.”
The loss ended a five-game unbeaten streak for the Gauchos, who fell to a record of 13-6-2 overall, 7-2-1 conference. With their fourth straight win, the Titans secured their second consecutive Big West title while improving to a 13-7-1 overall, 6-3-1 conference record.
UCSB’s season is not over despite the loss, as it will play in the NCAA Tournament this Sunday. The Gauchos received a first round bye and the No. 15 seed in the tournament and will host the winner between South Carolina and Furman’s first round game which takes place on Thursday.
“You start the season with one goal in mind and that’s to be the number one team,” Vom Steeg said. “For us, that starts with making the NCAA Tournament. That’s what we strive for.”
Fullerton also qualifies for the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive year and will play Santa Clara in the first round on Thursday. Head Coach George Kuntz improved to an outstanding record of 13-1-1 in the Big West Tournament with the win, earning his sixth Big West title in the process.
In a match that was dominated by the Gauchos from the opening whistle, it felt for much of the game as if the home side was bound to score at any moment. UCSB saw several close scoring chances in the first half clang off the crossbar, including a free kick by sophomore midfielder Kevin Feucht from 30 yards out.
Santa Barbara headed into the break with a 9-2 advantage in shots and the game’s only shot on frame through 45 minutes.
The second half began with a bit of a momentum change as UCSB’s freshman goalkeeper Justin Vom Steeg was subbed out due to injury and Fullerton found itself with possession more consistently.
“Justin’s been dealing with a shoulder issue for about 2-3 weeks now. He warmed up today before the game and dove and he said he just can’t dive to his right,” Tim Vom Steeg said. “Realistically, he’s probably not going to get through the season. Obviously Justin is very disappointed right now.”
Although recording just two shots in the first half, the Titans doubled that mark in a matter of seconds, as Bell gave Fullerton all it would need to come away with the upset victory. After a throw in, a shot from the right side by senior midfielder Julian Okai came hard off the right post and fell right to Bell, who knocked in his first goal of the season past sophomore goalkeeper Brandon Berke in the 52nd minute.
“When the throw went in, unfortunately [junior midfielder Josue Espana] just couldn’t clear it. It’s just luck, really. They got the ball and they scored,” sophomore center back Fuad Adeniyi said. “Tonight I think the whole back four did a really good job, but unfortunately that’s the game that we play. One slip-up, one mistake can cost you the whole thing.”
The shocking turnaround forced the Gauchos to go into an all-out offensive mode, putting attacking players in at nearly every position outside of center back. Junior Ismaila Jome led the onslaught down the left wing, beating defenders and sending in a number of crosses for the remainder of the game.
UCSB finally got the chance it was looking for in the 82nd minute, after junior forward Nick DePuy blocked a pass in the midfield which led to his own breakaway. Before the nation’s second-leading goalscorer could get a shot away, he was taken down from behind by Fullerton’s Ricardo Covarrubias just outside the box, who was sent off with a straight red card.
Playing up a man, the Gauchos continued to send everything they had forward, resulting in their best scoring opportunity of the game in the 85th minute. DePuy working a perfect 1-2 combination with freshman defender Sam Strong on the right side of the box, but his right-footed strike went wide of the far post and the Gauchos’ attempted comeback fell short soon after.
“The sequence with about seven minutes left was our best soccer,” the older Vom Steeg said. “You’ve got Nick at that back post with everything to shoot at and he’s your best scorer. We had him 8 yards out to tie the game up a man and we know where that would’ve gone with them having the red card.”
DePuy led his team with eight shots, three more than the entire Fullerton team, but UCSB was hurt by the fact that only six of its 22 shots were on goal. It was just the third time all season that Santa Barbara reached the 20-shot mark.
The Gauchos have not won a Big West Championship since 2010 and last played in the final in 2011, when they lost to UC Irvine 3-2. The road to their first NCAA championship since 2006 begins on Sunday when they host either South Carolina or Furman in the NCAA Tournament Second Round.