With a school-record 17 wins and a second-straight Big West Championship to its credit, the UCSB men’s soccer team knew the NCAA couldn’t keep the Gauchos out of the playoffs this year.
Santa Barbara will host its first playoff game in the school’s history on Saturday at 7 p.m. against #23 San Diego.
“We didn’t get the bye, but we got the next best thing with a game at home,” senior forward Rob Friend said. “We’re all expecting a big crowd. Santa Barbara has never been in the playoffs before and hopefully with a home game we can get the students and the community out. It’s great that my last home game of my college career will be a playoff game.”
Pacific-10 teams Berkeley and UCLA were given byes over UCSB, despite considerably weaker records than the Gauchos.
“Some things are not going to change overnight. The NCAA regards the Pac-10 as the better conference; we have to go out there and beat those teams,” UCSB Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “[A bye] is a mixed bag. It’s hard to sit out a week and then play because you’re not game-fit, but it would have meant one less game to win. But we wanted a chance to play at home. We felt we earned that right, and we were able to do that.”
If the Gauchos get past San Diego this Saturday, they will have a chance at knocking off some of the Pac-10’s elite. The winner of Saturday’s contest plays Cal at Berkeley on Wednesday and then a possible matchup with UCLA, assuming the Bruins win their first playoff game.
“The rest of the conference is rooting for us,” Vom Steeg said. “But we know we have to get through San Diego first.”
The playoffs come at an opportune time for Santa Barbara, with the squad riding a six-game winning streak. UCSB has outscored its competition 21-3 during the streak while posting four shutouts in that same span.
“Drew [McAthy] and Rob are scoring every chance they get, and after having trouble in the beginning of the year, the defense has stepped up big time,” junior forward Gene Deering said.
San Diego finished its season with two strong shutout wins after dropping the previous four contests. Senior forward Ryan Coiner leads the Toreros with 14 goals to go, along with nine assists. USD also has a pair of junior midfielders – Matt McCausland (5 goals, 7 assists) and Eric Wunderle (7 goals, 5 assists) – who can cause damage.
“We’re going to have to keep an eye on [Coiner],” sophomore goalkeeper Danny Kennedy said. “But we’ll have a defender to match up on him.”
San Diego and Santa Barbara have faired similarly in games against common opponents; both defeated Riverside, Irvine, Fullerton, SDSU, Northridge and Saint Mary’s, and lost to LMU by one goal.
“We can beat them if we continue to do what we have done all season,” Kennedy said. “The only difference is they have previous playoff experience and we don’t. But we haven’t lost at home all season.”
After a snub last year, Santa Barbara finally gets its chance to see how far it can go in the playoffs.
“Everybody thought that our work paid off,” senior midfielder Dan Young said. “Last year the bid was up in the air, but this year we were pretty sure we’d get it. San Diego is a good draw for us; everybody is stoked.”