If fate is on the side of the UCSB men’s lacrosse team, the third time will be the charm in the first round of the U.S. Lacrosse Men’s Division Intercollegiate Associates (MDIA) National Championships today.
The #10 Gauchos (9-6 overall) travel to Plano, Texas for their third meeting with seventh-seeded UC San Diego (11-5) this season.
The last time the two teams met, the Tritons handed Santa Barbara a 10-7 loss, knocking it out of the Western Collegiate Lacrosse League playoffs. Since then, the Gauchos have had a two-week layoff, while UCSD lost to Sonoma State in the WCLL semifinals April 29.
“[The break] kind of gives us this hunger to play again,” senior co-captain and midfield Nick Schooler said. “It’s been two and a half weeks since we last played and we’re sitting on that last loss, thinking about it every day for two weeks. Every game from now on is our last.”
In a game filled with unforced UCSB turnovers, the Tritons scored early and often, quickly building a 9-4 lead midway through the third quarter. Despite a late comeback, the Gauchos were deprived of a WCLL title for the first time in three years.
The teams’ first matchup came in the First Four Lacrosse Invitational on March 11. After taking a 7-4 lead through three quarters, Santa Barbara appeared to have the game in hand before the Tritons put away three in the fourth and the game-winning goal just seconds into overtime.
This time around, UCSB is vying for a spot in the national quarterfinals and looking to minimize the mistakes it made in the first two games with UCSD this year.
“We have to execute our game plan,” Schooler said. “Basically, the best defense is a good offense, so we need to hold the ball as much as we can to keep [UCSD senior attack Nick] Dean from scoring.”
Dean, a First Team All-American, has been the key to the Tritons’ offensive success this season. In 16 games, Dean has recorded 41 goals and 47 assists, good enough for second in the MDIA Division A and eighth in the entire MDIA. Against the Gauchos this season, Dean has contributed eight goals and six assists and was a part of eight of the 10 goals UCSD scored in the playoff win.
“[UC San Diego] has Nick Dean. Having the best attack in the country is a pretty good start,” Schooler said. “But also, they all buy into their system and listen to what their coaches tell them to do. They just execute their game plan well.”
Santa Barbara can claim elite players as well, boasting five WCLL All-Stars this season. Defenders senior Damon Conklin-Moragne and junior Doug Abate were both named to the First Team All-League while Schooler, junior attack Nick Stratton and sophomore attack Luke Shaw earned Second Team honors.
With three national championship appearances in the past three years and two consecutive national titles, the Gauchos are one of the most experienced teams traveling to Plano.
“We’ve played in three straight national championship games. There is no other team out there who has done that,” Schooler said.
Though Santa Barbara brings back-to-back national championships into the 2006 tournament, Schooler said the team does not feel as if it has the target on its back this season.
“For once we’re not the team to beat,” Schooler said. “I enjoy being the underdog. I’m definitely looking forward to surprising some people who don’t even think we should be in the tournament.”
Schooler said he thinks the heat in Texas could play a big role in this week’s results. The Gauchos have been practicing in sweats for the past week in preparation for the climate change.
UCSB had the opportunity to practice at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., home of Major League Lacrosse’s Riptide, before leaving for Plano. UCSB Head Coach Mike Allan, who also works as an assistant for Riptide, arranged for UCSB to practice following the Los Angeles team.
“[Sunday’s] practice really got us fired up for the championships,” Schooler said.
The Gauchos’ bid for a national championship “three-peat” begins today, with the first face-off scheduled for 1 p.m. at the Russell Creek Athletic Complex in Plano.
“Every season [the national championship] is my goal,” Schooler said. “That’s something special about Santa Barbara lacrosse – our goal every year is to win the national championship. If you come up short of that it’s a disappointment. For most teams they are just excited to make the tournament, but not us.”