After 10 games decided by a single goal, nine total overtime periods and a semifinal game already decided in a shootout after not having one in 23 years, what’s a few extra penalty kicks to decide the Big West Championship?
On Sunday afternoon, the UCSB women’s soccer team traveled to Cal State Long Beach to compete for the Big West Championship. Despite scoring first, the Gauchos gave up the equalizer to the 49ers soon after, but not even a pair of overtimes and a regular five-frame shootout could finish it. Only after 110 minutes of high-intensity soccer and eight total shootout frames did the dust settle, with Santa Barbara raising the Big West trophy for the first time during the 10-year reign of Head Coach Paul Stumpf.
“I think that’s one of the biggest results of my career,” Stumpff said. “Finally getting over the hump and getting into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 10 years after four very close attempts, finally beating a team that maybe is a little better than us, and to put it away in the third sudden-death penalty kick is a wonderful feeling.”
Freshman goalkeeper Ali Cutler was in the net for the Gauchos in her second postseason-shootout appearance in her short UCSB career. Prior to this year, Santa Barbara had not been involved in a shootout since 1985, but the Gaucho squad held strong under the pressure. Santa Barbara shot first, and a first-frame miss put it down by a goal. Both teams made all of their shots until the fourth frame, when Cutler made a clutch save to knot things up. Both teams made their fifth-frame shots, which pushed the shootout into a single-frame sudden death.
“It was kind of shocking, because PKs are so rare, and it happened in two games in a row,” Cutler said. “It was really nerve wracking. [In the fourth frame], I was just like, ‘You know what, I have nothing to lose. I’ll just have to save this one.'”
UCSB missed again in the seventh frame, which all but sealed the trophy for CSULB. All the 49er shooter had to due do was find the net.
The CSULB shot hit the crossbar.
With the crowd going wild for both teams, UCSB scored in the top of the eighth frame. With the game on the line, 49er Yeraldy Hurtado clanged her shot off the left post, handing the Gauchos the championship.
“Diving for the last ball, I got kind of winded, and I was just laying there not sure if we had actually won, while the whole team and 500 fans just mobbed me and started jumping up and down,” Cutler said. “I couldn’t really breathe at first, but then we just kept celebrating.”
Although they were on the road, Stumpf said that track and cross country Head Coach Pete Dolan promised to fill up a bus full of track athletes for the game if Stumpf could acquire it. Not only did Dolan pull through, Stumpf said there was a waiting list just to get a ride to the game. Having a bunch of rowdy home-team fans certainly helped the Gauchos during the game, and made the win that much sweeter.
“I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the track team,” Stumpf said. “To have them come unglued after we scored first was amazing for us. I think it speaks volumes about the athlete-athlete camaraderie that exists at UCSB.”
Following the barn-burning finish, the Gauchos enjoyed a short trophy ceremony, and senior midfielder Sami Svercek was named Big West Tournament MVP. Svercek, in her last year with the team, has been instrumental in both dominating and controlling possession in the midfield and helping educate the rest of the very young UCSB midfielders.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Svercek said. “It’s kind of the cherry on the top of the cake. I’m really stoked to get it. Last year we had a really rough year, and it tough getting through it, but it was definitely worth all the hard work and effort to get where we are today.”
With the two premier teams in the conference playing in the championship, serious fireworks were predicted. Yet while both teams had good looks in the first half, a combination of the tension of the match and the quality of both teams’ defenses left the match scoreless through the first 45 minutes.
“We probably had our best chances in the first 15 or 20 minutes, and then it went away a little bit,” Stumpf said. “We kind of lost possession of the ball, and started to look a bit nervous. But the defense was great, and the effort, the focus and the intensity were there.”
The Gauchos finally found the net in the 52nd minute, off of a corner kick. Sophomore forward Jacqui Simon sent the kick short to freshman forward Kailyn Kugler, who then attacked her defender to create space for Simon. Kugler sent the ball back, and Simon sent a cross to the far post, which found freshman defender Alyssa Oldham. Oldham sent a head over the Long Beach keeper to notch her first goal of the year, which couldn’t have come at a better time.
“Its very, very exciting, [winning the championship],” Oldham said. “I pretty much wanted to give it everything I had for teammates. I was so excited and a little bit in shock when I scored.”
Long Beach found the equalizer almost immediately. Less than two minutes later, a 49er cross settled into the six-yard mark after getting deflected by Cutler. A CSULB player got a head on it and sent it to Dana Farquhar, who blasted a shot in from the top of the box. Despite the quick goal, Santa Barbara hung tough and battled out the final 55 minutes of play before heading to the shootout. Stumpf was proud of the poise his team showed after the slip.
“To our credit, [the players] didn’t panic,” Stumpf said. “They gritted their teeth and got back down to it. [At that point] I think the mentality continues to be that we are a very difficult team to score on and over the course of 90 minutes, very few people can shut us out.”
Cutler said that after Long Beach scored and time started to wind down, she was ready for another shootout.
“I was kind of hoping for PKs,” Cutler said. “I didn’t want them to score on me at the end of the game. PKs at least give the keeper a fighting chance.”
With the championship sealed up, the Gauchos have locked in an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, which they have not been to during Stumpf’s tenure. This afternoon, they find out their bid into the tourney, and Stumpf said that he is very much looking forward to the opportunity to play in the tournament.
“I gotta think I can sleep better tonight than if we were waiting for [an] at-large bid,” Stumpf said. “Our goal now is to experience as much of it as we can. I told the girls after the game it’s a dream of mine, and it would be a huge hole in my career if I had never made it, so it’s a huge monkey off my back.
“I’ve been at this for 10 years, and I can’t think of a bigger win for our program.”