It’s amazing how a little time and experience can help a team bounce back from a rough start. It’s even better when the team comes back when it counts.
The UCSB women’s soccer team, forced to play their younger players in a tough preseason schedule thanks to numerous injuries, have come together right at the beginning of Big West Conference play. The once young Gaucho team (5-5-2, 2-0 in the Big West) certainly didn’t show any inexperience this weekend, with a convincing 2-0 win over Cal State Fullerton (6-5-2, 1-2 Big West) on Friday and a 4-0 demolition of UC Riverside (7-5-0, 1-1 Big West) on Sunday. The dismantling of the Highlanders was the Gauchos’ best performance of the year, and as they sit atop the Big West standings, the rest of the conference must be worrying.
“I’m so proud of them,” Head Coach Paul Stumpf said. “It really speaks to their commitment to put in the work that they have and come out and play like they are. I’ve been relentless all season, trying to push them to get where they need to be. The character and work ethic of this team is amazing.”
A host of injuries to the would-be Santa Barbara starting line-up loomed over the team in the early season. The rest of the team had to speed up development in the hopes of having a competitive season; a task made harder by a preseason tour that faced some of the best teams in the nation. Coming from a point where most of the roster would see playing time to finally finding a more stable lineup has taken the bulk of the season thus far, but now UCSB is the team to beat.
“We’ve come a long way with the attacking mentality,” Stumpf said. “Part of it is the competition, and part of it is us. I’ve always said that familiarity breeds contempt, and when we start playing in the Big West against the same teams we face every year, the intensity goes up another full notch.”
Despite their rapid development, there still are a large number of freshmen getting playing time, and the brand new roster is still a source of humor for Stumpf.
“I had to introduce myself to a few of the players as I subbed them in tonight,” he said. “We are still playing a lot of freshmen, but they’re really not freshmen anymore. They definitely aren’t playing like it.”
UCSB finally asserted itself as a scoring threat yesterday with four goals over an underwhelming Riverside team. Riverside has given Santa Barbara a lot of trouble in the past, but a three-goal scoring blitz in the second half assured that the Gauchos would be on top this time around. Freshman forward Jacqui Simon opened up the scoring with a bender from the top of the box in the 27th minute, and UCSB didn’t look back. Both teams played solid soccer until the second half, when freshman forward Kailyn Kugler scored a pair of goals within 12 minutes off assists from junior forward Michelle Russell and senior midfielder Romy Barber. As if 3-0 wasn’t enough, Russell scored again just fifteen seconds later after a shot from freshman forward Jessie Edmonds rebounded right to her feet. The Gauchos dominated the Highlanders with a 20-5 shot count, averaging 20.5 shots a game for the weekend.
“We managed to get everybody some minutes today, and that’s the reward we get for every person on the team working so hard,” Stumpf said. “They say winning is the best deodorant, and with the nice start we’ve had we are very happy as a team.”
Santa Barbara came back from a rough Pacific Northwest road trip last weekend to face Fullerton in a re-match of last year’s first round playoff game in which the Titans upset the favored Gauchos. Needless to say, there is no love lost between the two teams, and Fullerton opened up with very physical style of play that the younger Gauchos had yet to face. Santa Barbara was not intimidated in the least, as evidenced by their 21-8 shot margin. UCSB got on the board early when freshman forward Brooke Salyer found herself 30 yards out with a wide open look at the net. Her shot was barely stopped by the diving Fullerton keeper, but the deflection landed right in front of Kugler for the first goal of the match, just 22 minutes in.
“I thought the girls handled the pressure and the physicality very well,” Stumpf said. “We made a few mistakes in the game, but most importantly we didn’t pay for them. Those are the mistakes that we can learn from without bad results.”
The Gauchos controlled possession for most of the match, and the Santa Barbara defense was so solid that Fullerton’s best chance was a lofting shot from midfielder that almost snuck behind senior goalkeeper Katie Wright but instead hit the crossbar. Senior defender Katrina Wright set up the goal to ice it with a cross to junior forward Michelle Russell in the 80th minute. Russell trapped the ball at the top of the box and drilled it in the back of the net to seal the victory and two-win weekend.