Winning on the road is never easy. Saturday night in Fullerton, the Gauchos did just enough to pull it off.
“Sometimes you have to grind out a win,” senior forward Nick Perera said. “This was one of those games.”
In a contest that featured more yellow card bookings than shots on goal, Santa Barbara came out on top 2-1 for an important Big West win.
UCSB got on the board first, scoring in just the third minute. Freshman midfielder Danny Barrera snuck a through-ball past the Titan defense to a streaking Chris Pontius, leaving the Hermann Trophy candidate wide open in front of the net with just the keeper to beat. Pontius did not hesitate to put the ball past Fullerton keeper Trevor Whiddon, giving the Gauchos a 1-0 lead. The goal was the senior co-captain’s 12th of the season, eclipsing his last-season total of 11.
Just 2:20 into the game, the Gauchos had a lead against one of the lowest ranked squads in the Big West. It looked like it would be smooth sailing from there for the #16 Gauchos, but the Titans would not give up.
“We did let up a little bit,” Perera said. “We could have stepped on their throats and kept it going but we let up a bit.”
Fullerton continued to put pressure on UCSB, and it paid off in the 37th minute. Freshman midfielder Michael Denny blasted a shot from well past the 18-yard box, and the ball found its way past Gaucho freshman keeper Kristopher Minton and into the Santa Barbara net.
The scoreboard read 1-1 as the teams hit the locker room for halftime, and a once lopsided-looking contest was still very much in the balance.
In the second frame, Santa Barbara attacked from the onset, but it was Denny and the Titans that had the first good opportunity. The freshman rocketed a free kick towards the net, and Minton was barely able to get his fingers on it before it careened off the crossbar and toward the ground. The ball was bounced around in the ensuing scramble, and somehow Minton was able to dive on it before the Titans could put it over the line.
The deadlock would continue until the 74th minute, when junior defender Jonny Zerah found some space in the right corner and worked a pass into the 6-yard box. Perera corralled the pass, and then turned and fired toward the left side of the goal. Whiddon was unable to react in time, and the Gauchos had a 2-1 lead.
UCSB almost extended that lead minutes later, when a loose ball bounced Pontius’ way and he moved into the box with just the keeper in front of him. Pontius tried to avoid Whiddon, but was upended by the keeper’s dive and the ball rolled harmlessly away.
The Titans would not have another solid opportunity in the game, and the 2-1 margin would end up being the final score.
“We had a lot of chances,” Perera said. “We probably could have scored two or three more.”
A one-goal victory counts just the same though, and UCSB is more than happy to take the three points for the win.
“Every game is three points on the line,” Pontius said. “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing — it’s still three points. We just needed to get those and that’s what we’re always focused on at the end of the day.”
With the win, UCSB improves to 9-4-2, and 4-1-1 in the Big West. The Titans drop to 4-12-1, and 1-5-1 in conference. Santa Barbara now finds itself in fantastic position in the Big West chase, trailing the UC Davis Aggies by only two points, with an extra two games still to play. The two conference leaders are set to square off at season’s end Nov. 8, in what could potentially decide the regular-season champion — and subsequently home-field advantage in the Big West tournament.
However, Santa Barbara still has three more matches to focus on before that one, and cannot overlook any of its opponents in a solid Big West. Next on tap for UCSB is a road game against Northridge on Wednesday at 2p.m.