For the second time in as many seasons, moans of frustration erupted from the UCSB men’s soccer team at Zodo’s Bowling and Beyond during the telecast of the brackets of the NCAA College Cup.
Only this time it had nothing to do with its ranking – it was because ESPNEWS stopped halfway through the selection special for an impromptu interview with recently crowned American League Most Valuable Player Alex Rodriguez, forcing already agonized Gaucho faithfuls to wait even longer to receive their fates.
Ten minutes later, the concerned faces on Gaucho players abruptly turned to smiles, and cheers filled the bar when it was announced that Santa Barbara received an at-large bid, and will host a first-round match against San Diego State.
“It’s great, we’re excited. It’s going to be good. All of the teams are good at this point, but playing at home is going to be a big advantage,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “We beat San Diego State a year ago, but they’re a much improved team this year. It’s good – I like our bracket, I like our draw, I like everything about it.”
The mood among players and the coaching staff was a far cry from last year’s somber mood, when most felt as though they were slighted, when UCSB was handed a #9 seed after spending most of the year at the top of the polls. This year’s team received neither a seed nor a first-round bye. But under the circumstances, it was satisfied with not only receiving a home game, but also a favorable draw that includes a potential second-round battle with Big West nemesis Northridge.
“We didn’t expect to get seeded. We avoided a lot of the better teams, we avoided Maryland, we avoided Indiana,” sophomore defender Andy Iro said. “We haven’t beaten Northridge this year and we feel like we owe them one. I’m happy about it.”
Vom Steeg agreed that receiving a home game was critical, and an impending second round clash just over an hour south at Northridge is much more favorable than the alternatives.
“I’m glad it came up. I’m pleased. I thought we might have to go play at UCLA. I thought we might have to be up at Berkeley, which is a really tough place to play,” Vom Steeg said. “Getting a game close to our place is good.”
With soccer on the Central Coast continually booming in popularity, players said they were excited for what is expected to be a huge turnout for Saturday’s 1 p.m. kickoff at Harder Stadium.
“It’s big time. You know after last year, it’s a good crowd, you know there’s gonna be a big crowd there on Saturday,” Iro said. “We couldn’t have asked for a better round.”
Senior midfielder Nate Boyden said he agreed that having a raucous crowd behind them is an ideal way to kick off their playoff run.
“We have great fans and we’re not going to let them down,” Boyden said. “We’re gonna get everyone out there and win our first-round game and get it going from there.”
The last time the Gauchos took on the Aztecs in the regular season was in last year’s season-opener, when Santa Barbara blanked them 1-0 in San Diego. But this year’s SDSU squad is far different than in yesteryears.
“I know they’ve had a great season thus far, and at the beginning of the year, they said they were final four bound,” Boyden said. “Personally, I think that’s a bit delusional. We’re going to show them on Saturday [afternoon] that their dream is going to stop here, and ours is going to continue.”
Although both Vom Steeg and Boyden said that their first priority is to take care of San Diego, none could deny how sweet it would be to avenge their only Big West loss this year, a 1-0 defeat Nov. 2 in Northridge.
“We would love to, but I don’t think [Northridge] is too happy about it,” Vom Steeg said. “We’d love to get one back from them, but we gotta take care of Saturday first.”
Boyden said he would also relish the opportunity to seek revenge on Northridge for robbing Santa Barbara of the Big West crown.
“I would love to play Northridge and get another shot at them, I think they know we got the better play the last time we played,” Boyden said. “We’re confident that we can go back out there and end that debate once and for all.”
At one point during the telecast, a sarcastic laugh broke out, along with a painful reminder of last year’s snubbing when Akron, a mid major much like UCSB, received the #9 seed as Santa Barbara did last season, despite spending most of the year near the top of most major polls and compiling a dominant 17-1-2 record.