The defending national champion men’s soccer team begins the next leg in its quest to return to the NCAA postseason Saturday, when the squad travels to Davis to take on the Big West’s newest member.

The #13 Santa Barbara team (3-2-2 overall) will be returning to Aggie Soccer Stadium where the Aggies (5-1-1) edged the Gauchos 1-0 last season on a goal from junior midfielder Sule Anibaba. The match will be the Big West debut for UC Davis, in its first full season in the conference after posting a 7-3-2 mark against league foes last season.

“I think they are as good as anyone in the Big West and they helped themselves by playing Big West teams the past two years,” Assistant Coach Neil Jones said. “They know all about every team and they have good players and work extremely hard together. They know they probably don’t have the talent to compete with every team, but if they outwork another team they can steal some wins.”

Davis has shown a dynamic offense, scoring at least three goals in each of its last six contests. Impressive as that is on paper, the Aggies have notched wins over Oakland, Sacramento State and Indiana University of Fort-Wayne, all inferior teams compared to their Big West counterparts.

A trio of players has notched four or more goals for Davis, including sophomore forward Chris Leer and sophomore forward Paul Marcoux, who have totaled nine and eight points respectively. Leading the potent offense is Anibaba, who has tallied six goals and is first on the squad with 13 points.

“He plays a holding midfield role and is almost 60 percent defense,” Jones said. “Four of his goals are off penalty kicks and it makes him look like a goal-scoring sensation, but he scored the winning goal against us last year up there. He has a great left foot and if you give him a chance around the box he’s probably going to finish it.”

The Aggie defense will try to contain a UCSB attack that has struggled for most of the season. Santa Barbara has netted more than two goals only once and the scoring drought has left the door open for the opposition to earn a win or tie late. The Gaucho defense has been prone to break down late in games. Two late goals allowed Stanford to tie UCSB in the season opener, and they also led to losses against Gonzaga and New Mexico.

Stepping in to help fill the Gauchos’ scoring void has been junior midfielder Chris Pontius. After proving his ability to play anywhere on the pitch last season, Pontius has emerged as one of UCSB’s most dangerous offensive threats. The Yorba Linda native leads the team with three goals and has given Santa Barbara the lead in two of the last three matches.

The Gauchos faced an uphill battle in the Big West last season, after starting the campaign behind the conference leaders with early season losses to Cal State Northridge and UC Riverside. The Santa Barbara men hope to show that they’re at the top of their game in their quest for a second straight Big West title, which begins Saturday at 4 p.m. The league opener will provide a crucial opportunity for the Gauchos, as they hope to erase the memory of last year’s embarrassing loss at the hands of the Aggies.

“It was a tough wake up call last year and a seven hour bus ride after losing isn’t much fun,” Jones said. “That feeling hopefully will stay with the guys and we’re fired up from the first whistle to the last.”