After a 10-day break, the UCSB men’s soccer team hosted the defending Big West tournament champions Cal State Fullerton in the conference semifinal Wednesday night.
The Gauchos found themselves down 2-0 early in the second half. Despite a late offensive spark that was ignited by Big West Midfielder of the Year junior Kevin Feucht’s 11th goal of the year, Santa Barbara ultimately fell short, losing 2-1 against the Titans in the postseason for the second consecutive year.
UCSB concludes the year 10-7-3 overall after going 6-1-3 in the Big West standings. In spite of its No. 1 seeding, the team’s RPI is too low to qualify for an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament without winning the conference tournament final.
Fullerton, who improved to 10-8-4 overall, advances to the Big West championship where it will face South division champions Cal State Northridge. The Titans will hope to secure their third straight conference title.
After a slow start to the match, CSUF started to grab a hold of the tempo and was quickly rewarded for its early energy when freshman forward Rei Dorwart’s sweetly struck effort found the top-right corner to give the visitors a 1-0 lead in the match’s ninth minute.
The Titans maintained control throughout the majority of the first half, limiting the Gauchos’ potent attack to just three shots. The top seeded Gauchos entered the half down 1-0, struggling to create anything up front.
“We didn’t get to enough balls first tonight,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “Like everything else, we’ve got a long offseason to look at that. We discussed this all year, and this is the first UCSB team in some time that had no wide play on either side.”
Fullerton struck almost immediately at the start of the second half when a poor UCSB clearance bounced to Fullerton’s sophomore midfielder Ross McPhie.
McPhie capitalized on the possession when his low shot rolled to the right of UCSB goalkeeper Brandon Berke for the score to double Fullerton’s lead to 2-0. The second goal forced the Gauchos to pick up the pace for the last 43 minutes, but the Titans’ conference-best defense was up to the test.
After several scoring opportunities and corner kicks, UCSB reached the back of the net in the 64th minute when freshman winger Noah Billingsley beat his man down the flank before firing in a hard low ball across the face of the goal post, in which Feucht was there to pounce on the chance.
For the next 15 minutes, the Gauchos controlled the pace of play and looked likely to score, but were unable to find the equalizer.
Senior midfielder Josue España, who had been playing with a slight knee injury since the first Cal Poly game, looked to be reinjured after a hard challenge on the counter.
Although he returned for five minutes, the team’s assist leader garnering seven assists had to come out early in the last game of his impressive two-year stay at Harder. Playing through injury, the senior managed to bring the home crowd to its feet on several occasions with his flicks and tricks before his exit.
España and Billingsley looked the most likely to create the game-tying chance, and the latter came within inches as his header from the middle of the box slipped just left of the frame.
Feucht and Big West Offensive Player of the Year senior forward Nick DePuy each led the Gauchos with three shots, but Fullerton eventually regained control for the final 10 minutes to see out their second straight postseason victory at UCSB.
“DePuy has had a great four years, three-time Big West Offensive Player of the year, but I think the one player that kind of drove our team and made so much happen for us was Josue,” Vom Steeg said.
An All-Big West First Team selection in 2015, España provided another dynamic to the Gauchos’ gameplan in his ability to play both on and off the ball.
“We wish he could’ve come as a freshman but we got him for two years, and you’ll take what you get,” Vom Steeg said. “From that Cal Poly game and on, he has been giving us what he can, but it’s just not 100 percent. When he started to slow down offensively, we really started to slow down because he was the one player that could get us through the midfield.”
The semifinal was the last match of five Gauchos’ collegiate careers as DePuy, España, midfielder Riley Peterson, midfielder Josue Salgado and captain midfielder Andy Perez will move onto their post-UCSB endeavors.
Unfortunately for the graduating class, their final year wasn’t topped off with a conference or national championship, but Vom Steeg will have several holes to fill before the start of next season, a testament to how crucial the outgoing class was to the team’s success.
Fullerton and CSUN, the two top teams from the South division, will now face off in Northridge Saturday night for the Big West crown.