The UCSB men’s soccer team has high hopes for its 2009 campaign. A hot start for Tim Vom Steeg’s squad, including a 4-0 drubbing of Rutgers on national television and several top-10 rankings has those hopes looking more and more realistic.

“We think we’re going to be better than last year,” the two-time National Coach of the Year said. “We have a team that should be hopefully going deeper into the playoffs.”

After last season ended with a disappointing NCAA tournament loss to Cal (UCSB’s first ever playoff defeat in the confines of Harder Stadium), the Gauchos are off to the races this year. Despite the loss of star striker Chris Pontius to major league soccer, UCSB’s offense has led the way with 14 goals in its first five games.

Freshman Michael Nonni, senior Martin Hedevag and senior co-captain David Walker have lit up opposing defenses in the early season, with 11 of Santa Barbara’s scores between them.

“A lot of people wondered whether or not we could rebound [on offense],” Vom Steeg said. “I’ve said all along that offensively we were going to be fine. … For the first time since I’ve been at UCSB, we have a collection of forwards that can really get behind the defense.”

The season started off on the right foot, with an exhibition win over cross-town rivals Westmont on Aug. 22. UCSB fell behind early, before rallying to three unanswered goals in its 3-1 win.

When Bakersfield came to town to begin the year in earnest, the Gauchos were prepared. Three goals for UCSB were countered only by a Roadrunner penalty kick, and Santa Barbara was 1-0.

Santa Barbara then hit the road, taking on West Virginia and Pittsburgh all the way out in the Eastern time zone. Despite a record crowd of nearly 3,000 for the WVU game, UCSB came away with a hard-earned 2-0 win. Walker and sophomore transfer Waid Ibrahim notched their first goals of the season in the win.

Against Pittsburgh that same weekend, UCSB had a little more trouble. The game was scheduled for an 11 a.m. start (8 a.m. Pacific), and the early hours showed. The Gauchos trailed three times before equalizing in the last five minutes and scoring the game winner in overtime to stay undefeated. Walker scored twice (including the late equalizer), sophomore midfielder Danny Barrera added another and Hedevag put in the game-winner.

“It’s a game that last year we would have lost,” Vom Steeg said. “This year we have a little more composure.”

When Santa Barbara returned home for a nationally televised game against Rutgers on Sept. 11, the team was 3-0 and riding high. In front of near 4,000 fans (despite the start of school still being weeks away) UCSB dominated the Scarlet Knights in a 4-0 victory. Rutgers fell behind early and was never able to recover, as the Gauchos played quality soccer throughout. Four different UCSB players scored, including sophomore Michael Tetteh with his first goal, and things were looking good for that Sunday’s match against LMU.

“That was the best half of soccer we’ve had over the last couple of years … we really ran them into the ground,” Vom Steeg said. “The Rutgers game is sort of a harbinger of what we can be.”

However, the Lions proved to be a bigger challenge than the Gauchos anticipated and exploited the SB defense for two first-half goals. While Hedevag was able to notch a late score, UCSB ended up falling 2-1 for its first blemish of the season.

“It was one of those games where nothing goes right,” Vom Steeg said. “Obviously I’m massively disappointed. We need to be ready for Sunday games.”

This weekend, UCSB travels to the Midwest for two games against Milwaukee and the University of Wisconsin, before returning home to face the Mexican U-17 team in an exhibition Sept. 22.