In a heart-stopping finish, the #1 UCSB men’s lacrosse team won its first-ever national championship Saturday over defending champion #2 Colorado State University by a score of 8-7 at the Anheuser-Busch Center in St. Louis. When the final seconds ran off the clock, the field was flooded by a tide of blue, white and gold as the Gauchos rushed onto the grass to the cheers of the crowd.
“That was such a furious fourth quarter; I didn’t even get to look up at the scoreboard for most of it,” Head Coach Mike Allan said. “I was relieved, just lots of relief. It didn’t seem like the clock was even running.”
Sophomore attack Steve Christensen beat CSU goaltender Pete Jokisch to move the Gauchos up 8-6, but the Rams came back with a goal from attack Nick Harper, CSU’s leading scorer of the game, to make it 8-7. From there, CSU mounted a determined forecheck, stealing the ball several times and giving everyone on the UCSB sideline heart murmurs. After one last offensive with 50 seconds left, the Gauchos would steal the ball and close out the game running.
“The guys that have been here, the seniors who have set such a great example for the team, they deserve this. They’ve set the standards high, and it’s going to be our job to follow them,” Allan said.
Santa Barbara would first got on the board when junior attack Luke Wilson lit up Jokisch just two minutes into the game. The Rams answered with a furious series of surges that netted them two goals in as many minutes, only to have Gaucho midfielder and captain Will Patton – now wearing #9 due to his normal #4 being stained from a reopened cut on his chin – rip one high and inside to tie the game at 2-2 after the first.
The second quarter proved to be one of the most important portions of the game as both teams combined scored seven goals in 15 minutes. The Rams started off the scoring by going up 3-2 barely a minute into the game, but the Gauchos answered back by scoring the next two goals. It quickly became a seesaw match, with CSU surging and Santa Barbara firing in return until the end of the half saw the 6-5 score tilted slightly in UCSB’s favor.
“It was emotionally draining. One goal games are always stressful, but I was confident my defense would be there,” junior goalie Ryan Brittain said.
Both teams played an evenly matched third quarter. The Rams tied the game with a beautiful pass from behind the cage. The score prompted an eruption from the CSU sideline and the Rams portion of the crowd as the defending champs evened the score with three minutes remaining.
Senior midfielder Tom Smith would have none of it though, as he picked up a loose ball in front of the CSU net in a mad last-minute scramble at the end of the third. Smith quickly threw it on the net for the score and a 7-6 lead with just 20 seconds left in the period.
“That was a special feeling, going into the fourth in that atmosphere. That’s where you want to be, not up in the stands. Everything was loud and charged, the crowd was into it. We were getting support from the teams we beat and the parents who came out to see us,” Patton said.
Allan led the Gauchos to an overall record of 24-1 in his first year as Santa Barbara’s head coach. The double feat of succeeding a successful coach – last year’s National Coach of the Year Scott DeMonte – and realizing the potential of a ridiculously talented team was made no less remarkable by the brutal schedule the Gauchos faced. With games against nearly every single preseason Top-10, nationally ranked program, Santa Barbara came through shining.
“Being able to go on the road and win out on that schedule is amazing. It was great to go into games with guys I’ve played with in high school and to be able to send the seniors off like that. That was the best part,” Brittain said.
“This win is huge for us. For the last six or seven seasons we’ve improved every year, from seventh in the nation to last year’s second place finish. It feels great to finally get over the hump. This win is something everyone in our program can get behind – the alumni, the West Coast lacrosse community, everyone,” Patton said.
With Saturday’s win, Santa Barbara avenged a 6-4 loss to the Rams in last year’s national title game. Both teams have been on a collision course this entire season, racking up lopsided victory after lopsided victory along two trajectories that had their termini in St. Louis. Opinions about who would win were mixed among the pollsters, the online pundits and the rest of the lacrosse nation. The only certainty was that both would have to meet to decide it all.
“We all knew the championships would have to go through [CSU] first. We were ready for it,” Brittain said.
Santa Barbara won the first match this year, defeating the Rams 10-8 at Michigan’s Oosterbaan Fieldhouse in April during the Michigan Invitational. The win was UCSB’s first ever over CSU after several attempts.
“That was a big step for us. That was our first win against [CSU], so that part of it was great. From a coach’s standpoint, it made me nervous because we knew we’d be seeing them again. Still, that was huge for us, especially since it came right off our first loss of the season [a 4-3 loss to Michigan],” Allan said.
After being awarded the coveted number-one overall seed for the U.S. Lacrosse Intercollegiate Associates National Championships, the Gauchos ran away from the competition. Santa Barbara blew out the University of Texas 15-6, overpowered the University of Oregon 12-5 and then destroyed fellow Western Collegiate Lacrosse League powerhouse Sonoma State 15-5 in the final-four portion of the tournament.
“We were nervous going into the game [against Sonoma State], at least from a coach’s perspective. We’ve played them so many times, so they knew us and what we could do. By that point in the season, we were very familiar with each other,” Allan said. “Whoever came out of the gates the strongest was probably going to win, so that’s what we did. We just held on to the early lead.”
Colorado State emerged from the other side of the pack by defeating Simon Fraser University, Michigan and BYU before meeting up with the Gauchos. The Ram offense, widely feared for its lightning-quick pace and mercurial attack style, was in fine display for the majority of the tournament, including a come-from-behind 11-7 victory over the Wolverines.
“It was obvious they had the talent,” Brittain said.