It’s senior night at UCSB, and the Gauchos are going out in style. With the Big West title all wrapped up and sitting at #3 in the country, Santa Barbara can take a victory lap against UC Davis Saturday night. However, that is hardly what the Gauchos have in mind.
“We really can’t lose a game,” senior forward David Walker said, “It’s too important.”
This begs the question: important for what? The answer lies in the all-important Ratings Percentage Index. UCSB’s ranking is an abysmal 48 as of the last release, and to garner better position for the NCAA tournament the Gauchos will need to improve that in the end of the season. To do so, they will be looking to win out in both tomorrow’s game and the Big West Tournament, which they will host.
Davis has struggled this year, sitting at 6-11-1 and 3-5-1 in conference. UCSB (13-3-2, 7-1-1 Big West) defeated the Aggies 3-0 when the teams met in Davis and will try to duplicate that success in front of a supportive home crowd.
“I’ve never played in another stadium with the atmosphere and quality that Harder [Stadium] has,” Walker said. The forward anchors a four-man senior class that will be playing its last regular season game in front of college soccer’s best fans.
“In my four years here I’ve traveled quite a bit,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of fields, a lot of locker rooms, a lot of atmospheres… there’s nothing like it.
“It’s so awesome just to look up and see the stands shaking. …It definitely pumps us up and gives us a huge advantage.”
Walker, along with midfielders Martin Hedevag and C.J. Cintas and defender Jonny Zerah, will be honored before the game for their career contributions. And while only Walker and Hedevag have been regular starters, all four have provided plenty of leadership this season.
“It’s kind of been about leading by example,” Walker said. “This year we’ve done a really good job of being able to manage the younger guys. None of us are trying to coach the team, we’re all out there to win.”
And win the Gauchos have. Since Sept. 25, UCSB has given up a total of one goal. That is 10 games — eight of them wins — with only a single score conceded. The defense is one of the most solid in Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg’s tenure, and junior goalkeeper Sam Hayden has been phenomenal.
“Fundamentally, we’re very, very sound,” Vom Steeg said. “It’s unusual for us to be caught out of position. And as the game wears on, we get better and we give up less chances.”
Vom Steeg is hoping to impress the NCAA selection committee enough to earn a top-16 seed and a first-round bye in the tournament, but he likes his team’s chances regardless.
“I like where we’re going, I like our team,” he said. “I’ll take this group anywhere on the road right now.”
Walker, who along with Cintas started his Gaucho career with a national championship, has high hopes for his final postseason. But he knows it will not be easy.
“It comes down to having a young team,” he said, “But our team’s done a really good job of growing up this year.”
And of course, Walker had to make one special mention going into his final regular season game.
“My parents have been at every game, home and away, so I have to give them a shout-out.”
They will undoubtedly be there tomorrow night, and so should every Gaucho fan around. Say goodbye to the seniors and say hello to the postseason, and come see #3 UCSB take on UC Davis tomorrow night. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. at the incomparable Harder Stadium.