For the third time in four years, the #1 Gauchos (16-2-1 overall, 7-2-0 in the Big West) clinched the Big West Conference Championship on Tuesday night with a 2-1 victory over #2 Cal State Northridge (9-5-2, 4-2-2 Big West) in front of a crowd of 1,110 at Harder Stadium.
In his last regular season home game as a Gaucho, senior forward Drew McAthy scored both goals to lead UCSB in avenging its 3-1 loss to the Matadors October 16.
“We knew it would come down to a game against Northridge, and tonight was our night,” McAthy said. “We actually started a little slow, but once we got going, I had a good feeling about it.”
The game winner, McAthy’s ninth of the season, came on a corner kick in the 51st minute. Senior defender Tony Lochhead took the corner from the right side, placing the kick just in front of the goal. The ball deflected off of junior midfielder Ivan Becerra and found its way to the far post where McAthy awaited to tap it into the corner to put UCSB up 2-1.
A quick Northridge offense got on the board early. Junior midfielder Daniel Paladini blew a rocket shot past senior Gaucho keeper Danny Kennedy to give the Matadors a 1-0 lead in the 13th minute.
UCSB put the equalizer in the back of the net just 13 minutes later. After subbing in seconds earlier, senior midfielder Jon Apilado received the ball and dribbled up the left flank. Apilado dished the ball to junior forward Jonathan Davis in the corner.
With a highlight reel move, Davis broke through three Northridge defenders on the endline and crossed the ball in the air to McAthy on the far post. McAthy placed a head ball up and over Matador senior keeper Radames Lafaurie to tie the game at one.
“[Davis] has been doing it all year when he’s healthy. He’s getting around the corner and serving good balls in,” McAthy said. “I was just thinking to myself, ‘The ball’s coming across, I just have to head it down.’ I did that and it went in.”
On Senior Night, the Gaucho seniors came out shining. The two goals on the night tied yet another record for McAthy. With 113 points in his career, the Huntington Beach native equaled career points record holder Scott Grasinger, who played for UCSB from 1979 to 1983.
The senior class, featuring Kennedy, Apilado, Lochhead, McAthy, forward Neil Jones and midfielder Matt Bly, have now produced 60 wins for the Gauchos in contrast to just 15 losses over their four seasons at UCSB.
“Sixty wins and 15 losses, what a way to go out tonight. Having to overcome missing two starters, and on top of that playing [senior defender] Chris Hughes, who hasn’t played a game all year except for five minutes against Westmont. He played very well,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “What a great team win tonight.”
Missing from the starting lineup were Jones and freshman defender Andy Iro, who were both serving one game suspensions due to yellow card accumulations. The defense made do with Hughes in the back and survived several scoring chances by Northridge late in the second half. For the first time in the past five matches, the Gauchos allowed their opponents to score.
“It wasn’t the prettiest game in the world, but we got the job done. We had a couple of players missing and we held on near the end,” Lochhead said. “It wasn’t pretty at all, but we got the job done.”
UCSB evened the score against the Northridge team that halted the Gauchos’ chance for a three-peat as Big West champs last season. Adding to the motivation was the fact that the Matadors handed UCSB its first loss this season.
“I think we took them a little easy last year,” Lochhead said. “We didn’t give them enough respect and they turned around and beat us in the conference so there was definitely a bit of revenge that we were looking to get.”
With its return to the #1 national ranking and its conference championship, UCSB looks poised to receive a high seed in the NCAA playoffs, meaning the Gauchos would get a first-round bye and a chance to host the first four rounds of the tournament.
“We came into the last week knowing we had three big home games and we needed three big results, and thankfully we put up three in a row,” junior midfielder Bryan Byrne said. “We knew coming into tonight it was going to be tougher than the other two.”
The Gauchos take their championship on the road to finish out the regular season at Irvine on Friday.