As if the first two meetings this year between Cal Poly and UCSB were not intense enough, the third meeting raised the bar entirely… and then some.
In the first-ever Big West Tournament semifinals, the Gauchos and Mustangs battled through two overtime periods in a 2-2 tie before going to a penalty shootout to determine the victor. Behind clutch saves by a freshman keeper and a clutch shot by a freshman midfielder, Santa Barbara advanced past Cal Poly 4-3 on penalties in front of a raucous crowd at Harder Stadium.
“I don’t have any words to explain it,” freshman midfielder Michael Tetteh said. Tetteh was the Gaucho who took the decisive fifth and final penalty kick that sent fans streaming onto the field in joy. “I was just standing there and [Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg] told me go out there and take the winning PK, and I was like ‘OK.’
“I’ve been waiting so long to come to this school, to play for this school, and finally to do something like that – it’s beyond my imagination.”
Tetteh’s goal capped off what had been a thrilling affair, very much fitting the standard these squads had set with their prior two contests, which each also went into double overtime.
The action started in the 16th minute, when Mustang forward Julian Alvarez found himself open inside the UCSB 18-yard box after a free kick. He and Gaucho freshman goalkeeper Kristopher Minton raced to the ball as it neared the end line, but Alvarez got there first and took a tough-angled shot toward the net. Somehow, the ball managed to find its way over the goal line and into the side netting, giving Cal Poly an early lead.
UCSB would not fade away, however. The Gauchos came back hard, out-shooting Cal Poly 10-2 on the half, but it was to no avail. Between brilliant saves by Mustang senior keeper Eric Branagan-Franco and phenomenal defense by his back line, the Gauchos were unable to get on the scoreboard. That would change dramatically in the second half.
Santa Barbara came out strong in the second period, dominating the Mustangs and registering shot after shot on Branagan-Franco. It was not until the 64th minute that the Gauchos would equalize, though, when senior forward Nick Perera received a pass from freshman midfielder Luis Silva on the run inside the box. Perera, alone against Branagan-Franco, promptly slid the ball to the right side of the net to tie the game at one goal apiece.
Not content with just one goal, the senior would strike again just moments later. In the 66th minute, Perera received a long kick from Minton – the goalkeeper – and was off and running into the 18. Perera wasted no time in blasting the ball into the corner of the net, giving the Gauchos a 2-1 advantage.
“We needed to get out of our slump,” Perera said of the sudden outburst. “Once we got one, we were ready to go.”
Minton got credit for the assist, unusual to say the least for a goalkeeper, but it was later in the game that he would provide true heroics.
With all the momentum late in the game, it looked as though the Gauchos had victory in hand, but Cal Poly was not done yet. The Mustangs’ star assist-man Kyle Montgomery placed a corner kick in the 78th minute perfectly in front of the frame, and defenseman Patrick Sigler rocketed a header past Minton and into the net. The score stood at 2-2, and it would remain that way throughout the second half and the two overtime periods.
While UCSB out-shot Cal Poly 30-8 on the match, including a 13-4 margin in shots on goal, the Gauchos were unable to find the goal again. The game seemed destined for penalty kicks during two relatively firework-less overtime periods, and when they came the Mustangs seemed to have an advantage. In net for the Gauchos was the freshman, Minton, who had been relatively untested all game. Cal Poly, on the other hand, boasted a savvy veteran senior in Branagan-Franco, who had already made 11 saves on the night. Minton came up bigger.
In the first frame, with the crowd going crazy behind the net, Minton came up big with a two-handed stop on Mario Fernandez’s shot. Perera sunk his shot for the Gauchos, giving UCSB a 1-0 advantage.
Then came the second frame, in which the Mustangs’ Montgomery took a shot to the right. Minton guessed correctly again, and caught the ball mid-flight on its way into the netting. Senior forward Chris Pontius nailed his chance, and UCSB had a 2-0 lead.
The third frame saw Cal Poly’s Jacob Hustedt make his shot, while the Gauchos’ Jon Curry had his saved by Branagan-Franco. With just two frames left, UCSB led 2-1.
In the fourth, Jose Garcia slotted his shot past Minton, but Gaucho senior co-captain Alfonso Motagalvan returned the favor. Going into the final kicks, the score was 3-2.
The Mustangs’ final shot was taken by David Zamora, who appeared to actually mishit the ball. Minton got his hand on it but was unable to stop its progress as it soared into the netting to tie things at 3-3. With the game on the line, Vom Steeg sent out his hard-shooting freshman to end it.
The 3,601 crazy fans at Harder Stadium collectively held their breath as Tetteh set up his shot. Cal Poly’s season was riding in the balance, and the Gauchos’ chances of a playoff bye were resting on the freshman’s foot as well. Tetteh booted the ball hard to the right side, but Branagan-Franco guessed correctly – he just couldn’t beat the ball there. The senior keeper was only able to punch the ball into the side netting, and Gaucho fans sprinted onto the field to mob the team.
“It’s unreal,” Tetteh said. “I’m used to playing in big crowds, but the crowds here are amazing. We truly appreciate it. It’s great… it’s great.”
After the loss, Cal Poly must now wait and hope for an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament. The Gauchos, on the other hand, will advance to the Big West Tournament finals at UC Irvine on Saturday night. That game is set to kickoff at 7 p.m.