The latest chapter in the UCSB men’s soccer team’s rivalry with Cal State Northridge was as physical as ever as the #15 Gauchos moved into first place in the Big West race.

Sophomore midfielder Ciaran O’Brien scored twice and assisted on senior forward Tino Nuñez’s goal to lead Santa Barbara (8-3-3 overall, 5-1-1 Big West) to a 3-0 victory. The Gauchos continued their dominance at Harder Stadium, where they have not lost since the beginning of September.

O’Brien got the scoring started early after junior midfielder Eric Avila was pulled down by sophomore defender Robert Pate right outside the top of the penalty box. Pate earned a yellow card on the play and O’Brien bent the free kick off the crossbar and into the goal for the early advantage.

“It doesn’t get better than that at any level,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “You always want your free kicks to come in a big game, an important game. He practices that every day and he deserved it.”

In the second half, Avila broke through the Matador (5-4-5, 1-2-3 Big West) defense and found midfielder Chris Pontius in the middle of the box twice, but the conference’s leading scorer was unable to find the back of the net. In the 68th minute Avila’s cross for O’Brien was deflected by junior goalkeeper Kevin Guppy, but the loose ball went right to the feet of sophomore midfielder Jon Curry on the left side. Curry knocked the ball to Nuñez, who buried a shot to extend the lead to 2-0.

Sophomore midfielder C.J. Cintas helped the Gauchos overcome an early injury to freshman defender Michael Boxall, who came off in the fifth minute and could potentially be out for three to four weeks. UCSB has played without senior defender Greg Curry for the majority of the season and was playing with a backline of senior Andy Iro, junior Kyle Kaveny and Boxall for the first time in three games.

“No one really expected [Cintas] to be able to step into that right back position like he has because he’s never played there until the last couple of games,” Iro said. “He’s as good as any of us out there and shows the quality of our squad.”

Freshman goalie Bryant Rueckner has rid himself of the nerves that come along with being a first-year goalkeeper, amassing his fifth shutout and fourth against conference foes. The defense prevented Northridge from amassing any offensive rhythm in the first half and withstood increased pressure after the Matadors began the second half with renewed energy.

“The hardest thing for a keeper is to be out of the game for 20 or 30 minutes and to have to make a big save or a big catch. Our defense started with our forwards and we kept it up the whole match,” Iro said.

The win, combined with Cal Poly’s scoreless tie with UC Riverside (4-4-6, 1-2-4 Big West), vaults Santa Barbara back into first place, one point ahead of the Mustangs (9-1-3, 4-0-3 Big West).