UCSB men’s soccer Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg and his squad probably never thought they’d be saying thanks to Cal State Northridge – at least not without some severe sarcasm behind it – but on Saturday the Matadors earned it.
In its league finale and without hope of surpassing either one of the top two finishers, Northridge upset first-place Irvine and opened the door for the Gauchos (12-7-0 overall, 7-3-0 in the Big West) to walk on through to a league championship. And this time around, UCSB made no mistake in finishing off the deed in the form of a 4-0beat down of a visiting Riverside (5-12-2 overall, 2-6-2 Big West) squad Saturday night.
“I told [the captain of Northridge] that they owed us one after last year [when we beat Irvine to help give them the league title],” senior midfielder Bryan Byrne said. “Either way we had to get the win, but it definitely gave us [some extra incentive].”
As Saturday was Senior Night, it seemed only fitting that senior midfielder Eric Frimpong was the first to break the scoring deadlock. In the 14th minute, a crafty through-ball from sophomore midfielder Eric Avila sprung Frimpong on a lightning-paced breakaway into the box. Frimpong only needed one touch to seal the deal and bring the Gaucho lead to 1-0.
Besides Frimpong, seniors Byrne, Kyle Reynish and Jeff Murphy took the field for the final collegiate league match of their careers in front of an enthusiastic crowd.
“It was excellent to finish my career in front of a big crowd and [winning] the Big West,” Byrne said. “It definitely ranks up there as one of my favorite games.”
That tally would last until the 37th minute, when sophomore midfielder Chris Pontius dropped a ball back to sophomore forward Nick Perera on the far left sideline. Perera took a touch inside, added a little Belgian flare with a quick step-over, and then sent a curling shot to the back post, making it a two-goal advantage.
The second half would see more of the same controlling soccer that defined the first half, including two more notches up on the scoreboard.
Goal number three came in the 66th minute when junior midfielder Brennan Tennelle gave the ball to Avila near the top of the box. Avila touched it inside from the left flank and then embarrassed the goalkeeper with a low-sailing ball to the near post.
The Gauchos completed the blowout in the 77th minute on a goal from Tenelle, who sent a 30-yard bomb over the flailing grasp of goalkeeper Charles Alamo. Freshman forward Bongomin Otii provided the assist.
“We were a little bit more relaxed going into the game because we knew that a tie or a win would win the Big West,” Byrne said. “Tim [Vom Steeg] gave us a little bit more leeway and told us to just go out and enjoy ourselves.”
On a less positive note, the opening minutes once again saw some Santa Barbara jitters, an unfortunate theme this season. Despite their obvious superiority over the Highlanders, the Gauchos surrendered several dangerous opportunities to the underdogs.
The most notable opportunity for Riverside came in the eighth minute of the game, when junior midfielder Brandon Plummer found some free real estate just inside the Gauchos’ penalty box. Plummer’s outside teammate found him all alone and supplied him the rock.
Although Plummer would strike it well to the back post, senior goalie Kyle Reynish would showcase the first senior heroics of the day and make a miraculous save to keep zeros up on the scoreboard. His reaction time was uncanny, and the save exhibited in one fall swoop the reason why teammates call him one of the best shot-savers in the nation.
“Kyle was put in a very difficult situation after Danny [Kennedy] left; we lost seven starting seniors so we weren’t as strong a team,” Byrne said. “But he’s always good for one or two big saves [like he was in Saturday’s match]; he’s just gotten better and better over the last couple of seasons.”
The Big West Championship affords the boys in blue a return trip to the NCAA Tournament. Game times and locations will be announced today at 1 p.m.