The #15 men’s rugby team will play their first match of the year against UC San Diego this Saturday at 1 p.m. at Harder Stadium.
It looks to be an auspicious start for the Gauchos, who are coming off of last year’s 13-3 season with high hopes. Gone are four senior starters, but the strength of the previous squad will return. Eight sophomores who brought so much energy to the lineup last season have a year of experience under their belts and look to dominate as juniors. UCSB will return a team that went 7-1 in league last year and scored more points on the #1 Golden Bears than any other team in the nation had in eight years, in a loss to the 12-time defending national champion.
“We’re looking pretty good,” Head Coach Kevin Battle said. “We’ve got a solid team that knows what it can do.”
There are a few snags for the Gauchos, though. Senior Brian Townsend is out after having reconstructive knee surgery in the offseason, and All-League junior Kevin Guibara is recovering from mono.
“Losing Brian and Kevin are big blows. We’ve asked people to step up and luckily for us they’re doing just that,” Battle said.
UCSB, which plays in the Southern California division of USA Rugby, faces a tough league schedule. The University of Arizona looks strong, and traditional rival Cal Poly is ranked fifth in the nation. UCSB beat the Mustangs last year in a must-win game that left both schools tied for first. However, Cal Poly earned a higher seed and drew Saint Mary’s College, leaving Santa Barbara to face powerhouse Berkeley in the playoffs.
“We played a good game against Cal, but I feel that we could have done as well if not better than [Cal Poly] if we had drawn a better seed,” junior captain Andrew King said.
When asked about the anticipated rematch between the Mustangs and Gauchos, King was confident.
“With injuries and graduation, we lost eight starters. They lost zero. Having said that, with the way we’re looking I think we can and will beat them,’ King said.
In order for that to happen, UCSB needs help from its younger players. One critical area Santa Barbara will be tested in is its depth. Luckily, several freshmen, sophomores and juniors who did not start last year, are all enthusiastically vying for playing time.
“I love it. They’re flying around out there,” Battle said. “We have freshmen stepping up knowing those spots are up for grabs. That affects everyone, and it’s been intense.”
Depth will be important down the stretch because the team will be playing weekly from now until the end of March. UCSB will host a dangerous San Diego State team next week, then travel to UCLA on Jan. 31. Santa Barbara will visit the University of Arizona and Arizona State the following week.
The rivalry with Cal Poly looms large and will take place in San Luis Obispo on Feb. 27.
“We ended their undefeated streak last year in the conference championships,” Battle said. “I think they might have been looking past us, but they won’t make that mistake again. Both sides are looking forward to that game.”