Somehow, it always has to come down to this. It took penalty kicks to separate them last year, but this time around both programs will need to settle the score in under 110 minutes. With the Big West Tournament’s #1 seed in the balance and bragging rights on the line, it’s hard to imagine how Sunday’s home matchup between UCSB and Central Coast rival Cal Poly could get any bigger. The Gauchos (8-8-2 overall, 5-1-1 in Big West) are riding a six-conference match unbeaten streak into the regular season finale and yet still trail the Mustangs (12-5-0, 6-1-0) in the conference standings.
“We’re defiantly excited to play [Cal Poly],” said senior midfielder Jaqui Simon, “Because the winner of that game will probably be the host for the Big West Tournament.”
Cal Poly and UCSB are currently #1 and #2 respectively in the Big West and are separated by just two points. A Mustang win or a draw Sunday would crown the visitors conference champions, and statistically speaking that outcome could be far more likely. Cal Poly enters the weekend contest not only riding a six-game unbeaten streak like Santa Barbara, but with a six game shutout streak as well. The Mustangs haven’t surrendered a goal since Oct. 2, and a lot of credit for that defensive brilliance must go to senior keeper Coral Hoover. The Corralitos native leads the Big West in goals allowed (9), goals allowed per game (0.63), save percentage (.913) and shutouts (9) and ranks second in the league in saves (94). This defensive tenacity has secured the type of wins over Pac-10 opponents the Gauchos have failed to earn this season. Cal Poly turned in a brilliant 1-0 overtime result at then-#7 Cal, and then proceeded to beat Arizona 3-0, the same Wildcat squad that handed UCSB a 2-1 humbling at Harder Stadium.
Offensively, the Mustangs look to test a Gaucho backline with an attack that seems to change every game. Twelve different players have scored for Cal Poly this year, and six of those 12 have scored more than once. Sophomore midfielder Tiffany Gummow and freshman forward Cici Kobinski sit atop the Mustang roster with four goals apiece. Due to Cal Poly’s high defensive aptitude, the Mustang attack often hasn’t needed to produce more that one goal to seal the win, as seven of SLO’s 12 victories have been 1-0 shutouts.
“It just means that we’ll have to treat every player as if they could break out any time,” said junior defender Julia Speace. “I think we need to have equal focus on each attacker … We should be able to take care of them.”
Going up against a defense like that, UCSB will need more than one goal Sunday if they hope to win the Big West, and they certainly have the personnel to do it. Junior forward Kailyn Kugler is second in the conference with nine goals, while fellow junior forward Kylie MacDonald ranks second in the Big West with seven assists. While she won’t be repeating as Big West Offensive Player of the Year, senior forward Genelle Ives is always dangerous around the ball and at 5′-11” adds height to an undersized Gaucho attack. Add to the mix two veteran senior midfielders in Simon and Sarah Stoltz, plus the lighting speed of sophomore forward Alissa Sanchez along the right side and UCSB should give the vaunted Mustang defense all they can handle.
“I think we’re capable of breaking through,” said Speace. “[Kugler]’s a pretty steady scorer, [MacDonald] has so many assists … If we connect on everything we can break them down. We can break any team down.”
While their defense can’t boast SLO’s pretty numbers, UCSB can certainly be proud of junior keeper Tammy Lenham, who made a career-high 12 saves in last weekend’s 0-0 draw at Pacific. Lenham, who has split time in goal with sophomore Ali Cutler, was named Big West Player of the Week in recognition of her last road performance.
“[Lenham] just kept hitting them back,” said Speace. “[Pacific] peppered her with some many shots, especially in the second half … We know she can do that. We have all the confidence in the world in her.”
While a win would give the Gauchos the #1 seed in the upcoming Big West Tournament and a home field advantage throughout, a draw or loss could potentially land them anywhere from the #2 or the #4 seed. A Cal State Northridge (9-9-0, 5-2-1) win over Long Beach State (5-9-3, 1-4-1) coupled with a Gaucho loss would give the Matadors the #2 seed, leaving UCSB at #3. That’s not even taking into account the Tigers, who — if they win out — could jump Santa Barbara in the standings as well should the Gauchos lose.
The annual revival of the Central Coast rivalry is set for a 1 p.m. kickoff this Sunday at Harder Stadium. As always, admission is free for students.