The rest of the Big West better take note, because the #12 UCSB men’s soccer team is more than ready to defend its conference crown.
The Gauchos (5-2-2 overall, 2-0-0 in the Big West) embarrassed another opponent Wednesday night – this time on national television – dominating #25 UC Irvine (5-2-2 overall, 0-1-0 Big West) 4-0 in front of a season-high 4,402 fans in attendance at Harder Stadium. The offensive outburst continued for Santa Barbara, who has outscored league foes 8-0 through two games and has netted 14 goals in its last four matches.
“Hopefully [the Big West is] scared. We definitely picked a good time to play the best game we’ve had this season, especially on national television,” junior defender Kyle Kaveny said.
Leading the charge yet again for UCSB was junior midfielder Chris Pontius, who put the Gauchos on the board in the 26th minute, the third straight match in which he has scored his squad’s first goal. Junior midfielder Eric Avila began the play by finding senior forward Tino Nuñez, who had his back to the goal in the middle of the box before laying a pass off that Pontius, which Pontius promptly blasted into the right of the net from the top of the box.
The Santa Barbara offense did not let up, and minutes later, junior midfielder Alfonso Motagalvan collected a poor clearance from the Anteater defense. The Gilroy native carried the ball into the box and sent a blast to the left of diving junior goalkeeper Greg Larson to give UCSB a 2-0 advantage. Motagalvan was not done on the offensive end, heading sophomore midfielder Ciaran O’Brien’s corner kick off the crossbar before a waiting Pontius tapped it home in the 39th minute.
“I was [used] back last year, but a couple of games I’ve scored a couple goals; in a couple practices, I’ve scored some goals,” Pontius said. “I’ve just found myself being moved up the field. I was originally recruited to be a midfielder or a striker, and I’m happy to be up there and try to keep doing what I can do.”
In the 85th minute, Pontius completed the first hat trick of his collegiate career, knocking in a rebound off a shot from senior midfielder Brennan Tennelle and bringing the crowd in Harder Stadium to its feet once again. After playing a primarily defensive role last season, Pontius has erupted for a team-leading seven goals and 15 points.
“When we brought Pontius in as a freshman, he reminded me a lot of [former All-American striker Drew] McAthy,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “When things weren’t going well up front, we had to use him because of his athleticism, but he’s so good around the box and his speed is what has really changed his game this year.”
Irvine entered the contest with one of the premier defenses in the Big West, having allowed six goals through its first eight matches. The three goals the Anteaters allowed in the first half alone were more than they had previously given up in a single game this season. Despite starting off the 2007 campaign with five straight wins and beginning to surface in several national polls, Irvine has now gone winless in its last four matches, posting a 0-2-2 mark during the span.
The Gauchos pride themselves on dominating the opposition on their home turf, and with the win, the squad improves its Harder Stadium record to 3-1-1. Santa Barbara’s defense – playing without freshman defender Michael Boxall, due to Boxall’s yellow card accumulation – turned in yet another stifling performance, limiting the Anteaters to 10 shots while Rueckner needed only two saves and was never truly tested.
The shutout was the third of the year for UCSB, and its second straight to open conference play. After falling victim to late goals on several early season occasions, the Gaucho defense was solid for 90 minutes and has now allowed just two goals in its last four matches. Irvine could not generate any offensive rhythm facing constant Santa Barbara pressure, while talented junior midfielder Matt Murphy was limited to only three shot attempts.
“Our team defending started with our forwards working hard; it went to our midfielders who kept people in front and double teamed,” Vom Steeg said. “Our back line has benefited from the fact that everybody else is doing more work. I thought it was a team shutout.”
Making the first start of his collegiate career was sophomore midfielder C.J. Cintas, who got the nod due to Boxall’s absence. After coming on as a substitute in several of UCSB’s matches this season, Cintas turned in a solid defensive performance, again demonstrating Santa Barbara’s tremendous depth that has been a strength for the past few seasons.
With the team playing well on both sides of the ball, the Gauchos have hit their stride much earlier than last season, and are letting the rest of the Big West know that the team still yearn to be the champs.
“We know that we have a target on our back this year, and no matter what, we’re going to take the challenges that face us this year,” Pontius said. “We’re a much more disciplined team, and we know what it takes to get it done because we’re so much more experienced.”