By Justin Tenuto
If Friday night was orgasmic, Sunday was a kick in the crotch.
On its first game of the weekend, the UCSB men’s soccer team vanquished second-place Irvine 2-0 to clinch the Big West Title. Another win would’ve meant six W’s in a row and a probable at-large berth in the NCAA Playoffs. But another win did not come. Instead, a 3-2 loss to Cal State Fullerton deflated the Gauchos’ hopes for the postseason. Of course, nothing will be certain until tonight’s tournament selections.
Friday night’s match was the game of the season for Big West soccer. After tying bottom-feeders Riverside, Irvine had dug itself into a hole and given Santa Barbara an easy formula: beat Irvine and win league. Senior forward Jaime Ambriz was the first part of that formula.
Ambriz took a third-minute pass from senior defender Galen Donaldson and shoved it into the back of the net. The early goal was Ambriz’s third on the year.
The half continued without flair. Opportunities for either team did not produce any goals, and halftime came with the score favoring Santa Barbara 1-0.
The second forty-five began with Irvine attacking. But, fittingly, it was junior forward Rob Friend who put the Gauchos up 2-0. His eight-yard knock was assisted by freshman defender Tony Lochhead.
“That one really hurt us,” Irvine Head Coach George Kuntz said. “We let up defensively, and you can’t do that when you’re playing against a guy like Friend. And, of course, we missed easy opportunities after that as well.”
Kuntz was referring to a 78th-minute penalty kick given for a handball in the box. A PK is usually a sure goal, with the team’s best shooter 15 yards from goal and the opposing keeper glued to the line and forced to guess one side or the other. But freshman keeper Dan Kennedy is not a typical goalie. Irvine’s Sean Gesell could not push the PK past Kennedy, whose phenomenal save preserved the shutout.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Kuntz said. “PKs are so important when you’re down, and to miss one – well, it’s disappointing. It was a fabulous save though.”
UCSB ended the night with only 4 shots and, more importantly, with the Big West Championship. A bus ride to Fullerton meant the final game of the season and a chance to end the season with six straight wins and a favorable record when the NCAA tournament selection came around. But it was not meant to be.
Cal State Fullerton scored its first goal in the 23rd minute. Fifty-two seconds later, Fullerton received a penalty kick, and this time Kennedy could not pull out a miraculous save. Suddenly it was 2-0.
It didn’t take long for the Gauchos to answer, however. Less than two minutes later, freshman midfielder Nate Boyden brought the Gauchos closer with a goal that was assisted by Ambriz and senior midfielder Steven Sosa.
Friend would get his 11th goal of the season seven minutes later, and one couldn’t help but think back to October 12, the previous CSUF-Santa Barbara match. That game had the Gauchos down 2-0 after some lackluster play, but ended with three unanswered UCSB goals and a 3-2 victory. Things would end 3-2 again, but sadly, Santa Barbara would be on the losing end, as Titan midfielder Cameron McKinnon’s goal ended UCSB’s hopes to win out.
“Nothing is certain,” UCSB Assistant Coach Rick Barker said. “I thought we had to win out to make the postseason, but we still won the Big West, and anything can happen.”