Three weeks ago, the UCSB men’s rugby team thought it would be working the Sweet 16, not playing in it. Apparently, the truth goes a long way for the honest.
The Gauchos will take on Wyoming, a perennial Midwestern powerhouse, at 8 tonight in the Sweet 16. If they advance past Wyoming, they will await the winner of the Utah-Purdue matchup — scheduled for 6 tonight at Harder Stadium — in the Elite Eight, which will be played Saturday night at 8.
“I feel really confident,” Gaucho Head Coach Kevin Battle said. “Our boys have been working really hard. This is our year to do it. Our seniors will be key for us. If we play our game, I think we’ll be successful.”
Although the Gauchos went 11-2-1 on the season, knocking off #4 Cal Poly and top-20 UCLA among other impressive wins, in the end, they needed a bit of luck and some honesty from one of their biggest foes to get their bid. Rival Long Beach State went 12-2 on the season, winning the conference title by one game and seemingly sending UCSB to an early off-season, but the 49ers were found to have fielded ineligible players, some of whom were impact players. The team came clean, thus allowing the Gauchos to represent the conference in the NCAA Tournament.
“We felt really good,” Battle said. “They stood forward and said, ‘We fielded ineligible players, and we think Santa Barbara should go.’ It was a lot of honesty on their part.”
Junior hooker Adam Mitchell recounted the story.
“It was the middle of Spring Break when we found out we were going,” Mitchell said. “I didn’t believe it at first. Now, we’re so stoked to get a second chance.”
This year marks the third consecutive year the Gauchos have been to the playoffs. The first year, a low seed drew them national powerhouse Cal, a program that has won more Division I championships in the past decade than it has lost. Last year, the team narrowly lost to Army after holding a lead in the final few minutes. This year, the team is much more confident.
“What really hurt us last year in the Sweet 16 against Army was our lack of depth,” Mitchell said. “This year, we are the deepest team we’ve ever fielded. With the guys we’ve got, playing at home, we feel that this is our year.”
Playing at home brings a new level of energy to the game, as UCSB found out in January against Cal Poly. Down by two in the final minutes, the Gauchos stormed back to score a try, and drop-kicked a last-second field goal to clinch the win in front of hundreds of fans. Battle raved about the fan support after the game, and the Gauchos hope to draw an even bigger crowd for what is certainly the most important game the team has ever played.
“You definitely get a big boost playing in front of the home crowd,” Mitchell said. “It’s like having a 16th man out there.”
Tickets will be $3 for UCSB students and $5 for general admission.