Heading on the road to rumble with a rival can be intimidating for weak teams, but for teams with title aspirations, a big game is just a chance to do big things.
The UCSB women’s soccer team did some very big things last night, blowing away Cal Poly 4-2 in San Luis Obispo. The Gauchos (10-5-1 overall, 3-1-1 Big West) had their fitness tested in Sunday’s very physical matchup after battling to a 1-1 tie with Pacific on Friday. In contrast to the somewhat tired Santa Barbara squad, the Mustangs (8-7 overall, 3-1 Big West) had the huge benefit of getting Friday off.
“I think [the team] should feel pretty good about themselves,” Head Coach Paul Stumpf said. “(A) It’s a road win. (B) It’s a Sunday game after playing a long match Friday. (C) It’s against the local rivalry where we actually hate each other.”
With the Mustangs benefiting from a home crowd and a couple extra days’ rest, Cal Poly turned up the speed of the game from the get-go. Not losing a step, the Gauchos answered with the speedy attack they have showcased all season. Not willing to go down early in a classic challenge for Central Coast supremacy, Santa Barbara found the back of the net first, thanks to a coolly taken penalty kick from sophomore midfielder Kailyn Kugler. Kugler had beat the goalkeeper in the box, but was abruptly taken down from behind by a sliding Mustang defender. While Kugler earned the PK brilliantly, the rear tackle was not admonished by the referee, who failed to produce a yellow card in what is typically an automatic-red situation.
“[Cal Poly] came in fresh, we came in tired; it was a physical battle from the word go,” Stumpf said. “We scored first in the 26th minute; [Kugler] beat the goalkeeper and then got taken down from behind, which should have been an ejection but she didn’t even get a yellow card. It was really poor; the referee was really poor tonight.”
In no way comfortable with a 1-0 lead against a fellow Big West contender, the Gauchos continued to attack heartily in the hard-fought opening stanza. While both teams got opportunities to notch goals, it was Kugler who again provided the finishing touch, putting UCSB up 2-0 in the 43rd minute. Junior forward Genelle Ives stole a ball deep in the Mustang defense, and whipped a pass back to Kugler who was just inside the 18. With the defense scrambled, Kugler had the time to comfortably trap the ball and rip a well-placed shot that left the Cal Poly keeper with no chance to save. Despite pulling ahead early, Stumpf said that he stressed at halftime that the game was far from over.
“They say 2-0 in soccer is one of the worst leads to have, because if you sit back, one goal gets the other team back in it and another one gives them all the momentum,” Stumpf said. “We certainly knew it wasn’t over. We felt good, but we were worried.”
Stumpf’s fears were confirmed just 10 minutes after the break. Cal Poly, who held the advantage in the aerial game, took full advantage of a 56th minute set piece and headed a ball in to rein the Gauchos back in at 2-1.
“We were worried about a quick [Cal Poly] goal and, of course, it happened,” Stumpf said. “Now its 2-1 and we’re tightened up.”
UCSB, definitely feeling the effects of Friday’s 110-minute game, held up under the rejuvenated Mustang attack, but the game was far tighter than the Gauchos would have liked. That is, it was tight until the 64th minute when senior midfielder Sami Svrcek sent a clean cross into Ives, who booted in her second goal of the weekend to send the Gauchos up 3-1. Ives, who leads the Gauchos with eight goals, wasn’t finished, and just a few minutes later she knocked in the 4-1 goal to ice it. Sophomore forward Jacqui Simon sent a ball over the top of the Mustang back line, and Ives showed off her pace by chasing down the bouncing ball through a pair of defenders and beating the goalie for the big finish.
The Mustangs managed to grab another goal in the closing minutes, but could not match the offensive output of the Gauchos, and the UCSB defense shut down any further attempts at climbing back into the game to seal the win.
“Now it’s 4-2 and we’re feeling good,” Stumpf said. “We weren’t feeling like the game was done yet, but with a two-goal lead with eight minutes to go we felt like even if they scored another we could keep the lead. We had to hold on a little bit, and I think our legs were a little tired, but we showed great poise in closing out the game.”
With just three games left to play in the Big West season, the Gauchos made a huge move in knocking off Cal Poly. Santa Barbara now sits in a three-way tie for first in the Big West, and made major strides in securing a playoff spot. With such an emphatic win, UCSB is playing exactly how they want to be toward the end of the regular season.
“What this does is gets us up to 10 points in conference with three games to go. We’re back in the driver’s seat in the conference standings,” Stumpf said. “We’re a good team because there’s so many good people we can have on the field. If I had to coach against us, I’d be so worried because of all the weapons we have.”