After a nonconference season that has certainly had its ups and downs, the UCSB men’s soccer team is finally ready to take on the Big West. It looks like the Big West may be ready to take on the Gauchos, too.

Santa Barbara is getting ready to play in a conference that Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg called the “best since I’ve been here.” The Gauchos (5-3-1, 0-0 Big West) will square off against undefeated UC Irvine on Saturday at 7 p.m. and may be in for a challenge. But then again, the Gauchos get very few breaks this season.

UCSB has faced three ranked opponents in their last four games, and the one that was unranked was UCLA — a team the Gauchos almost never beat. One of those teams was top-ranked and defending champion Wake Forest. Another was perennial powerhouse Indiana on the road. Through eight games, UCSB has played arguably the toughest schedule in college soccer, and now must face a very improved conference. The Gauchos feel like they are up to the task.

“We’re going to look more like we did in 2006,” junior forward David Walker said, referring to the Santa Barbara team that won the national championship. “When we were a team that had been playing together for a long time”

If predictions like this hold true, it is very good news for a Gaucho squad that has had trouble coming together so far this season. This is far from unexpected though, as more than half of UCSB’s roster is composed of freshmen, and injuries to two defensemen have left the coaching staff scrambling for personnel answers.

“The team needed a couple of games to get it together,” Walker said. “We needed to realize that we’re a team and not just a bunch of individuals.”

Santa Barbara’s match with Irvine will be the Anteaters’ biggest test of the season so far, as their 7-0-3 record has largely been padded by an easy schedule. However, in its first conference test against the much-improved UC Davis Aggies, Irvine battled its way to a 1-1 tie. Both of those squads are ranked in the top 25, but neither has been vetted against top competition quite like the Gauchos have.

“I think that Irvine doesn’t know what it takes to beat a big-time team,” Walker said.

He has a point. The Anteaters rise to Big West prominence is really beginning this year, after UC Davis and Cal Poly stepped onto the scene last season. In fact, the Anteaters were picked to finish fifth out of the seven Big West teams in the preseason coaches’ poll. They have certainly impressed so far this year though.

UCI is led by sophomore forward Spencer Thompson, who has gotten it done offensively this year with five goals and four assists. Junior midfielder Irving Garcia leads the team in assists with five, and freshman keeper Andrew Fontein has led the defense well, getting two shutouts in his six starts and registering a .760 save percentage.

Nonconference results aside, UCSB has a fresh slate now that Big West play is beginning and hope to make the most of it. But it is going to be anything but easy.

“Every game in the league is a different animal,” Vom Steeg said. “Last year we went 9-1-2. No one’s going 9-1-2 in this league.”