After failing to clinch the division last Saturday vs. Cal Poly in a defensive 0-0 draw, the UCSB men’s soccer team managed to achieve the feat Wednesday on the road as junior winger Ahinga Selemani’s 81st minute winner gave the Gauchos an edge to knock off the Hornets, 1-0, to clinch a seat at the conference semifinals.
Freshman goalkeeper Titouan Le Roux also made four saves to finish with a consecutive shutout performance for the first time in his debut season.
UCSB secured its spot atop the North, claiming its fourth straight division title with a 10-5-3 overall and 6-0-3 Big West record. The 10th victory went down as UCSB recording double-digit wins in the last 16 seasons under Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg. Sac State, now 8-7-2 and 4-4-1 in the Big West, also secures a spot in the playoffs. The Hornets clinched second place in the North as UC Davis lost to Cal Poly 2-1 in OT on Wednesday.
“We’re just really happy to finally get our first trophy,” Selemani said. “It’s very rewarding because we put in a lot of work this year but we’re just happy.”
At halftime, both sides seemed comfortable with the 0-0 scoreline. With zero shots on goal recorded in the first period, the second half marked the Hornets attempt to come out playing like a team that had to win to keep their division title hopes alive.
The Gauchos broke the deadlock, though, when sophomore defender Jan Ilskens recorded the first point of his collegiate career when he found Selemani at the top of the box, who drilled his left-footed shot into the top right corner for the winger’s fourth game winner of the season.
After the visitors took the lead, Sac State turned it up a notch, creating several great chances in the final 10 minutes. However, it was unable to find the equalizer in the end, thanks to a solid team performance by the UCSB defense.
Playing without starting junior fullback Randy Mendoza (yellow cards) and freshman midfielder Daniel Amo, who once again aggravated his groin injury against Cal Poly, it seemed plausible that the Gauchos would be at a disadvantage. However, freshmen Lamar Batista and Kyle Perno filled in the gaps with aplomb on the offensive end in a season-defining match.
“That was a huge challenge of ours, and in the early season we had a hard time finishing games and unfortunately dropped a lot of points,” Selemani said. “Mentally, we locked in. We’re a lot more focused now, and you can tell that everyone’s aware when the clock is ticking in the dying moments, so I think we’re doing a better job now.”
Le Roux made sure the Gauchos held onto their one-goal lead in the final minutes with a few clearances and saves to improve his scoreless run in goal to a season-long 285:22 minutes. The true freshman from Paris has been a revelation in his debut season, leading the NCAA with 1698:12 minutes, and the goalkeeper hasn’t missed a single second of game time.
Selemani’s strike in the 81st was his seventh of the season, placing him second on the team and third in the conference. Since the start of Big West play, the Ann Arbor native has the most goals in Big West play with five in the last nine matches. The Gaucho attack has been well balanced all year with three players in the top five of Big West goal scorers with junior midfielder Kevin Feucht atop the charts with 10 goals and senior striker Nick DePuy tied for fifth with six.
“It’s been exciting taking on a new role, and it all comes from practicing in the offseason, taking shot after shot, so finally getting results has been good,” Selemani said. “We’ve been playing well together, and everyone is finding one another, and we’ve found a way to get the offense going.”
DePuy’s 15 goals last season — the top in the nation during the regular season — made up just over 35 percent of the team’s goals. However, this year, that figure has dropped to around 20 percent thanks to the telling contributions from elsewhere in the attack.
As DePuy’s unlucky recent goal drought continues with the forward having just one goal in the team’s last eight matches, Feucht, Selemani and company have picked up the slack as the Gauchos’ unbeaten streak in conference is one game away from ending in an undefeated Big West season.
Next up for UCSB is the last home game of the season Sunday against UC Davis. The match will be played at Harder Stadium at 2 p.m., the team’s last game before beginning its postseason run with a Big West semifinal on Nov. 9.