With the curse of the Anteater looming, the #1 seeded UC Santa Barbara men’s soccer team heads into its biggest game of the season tomorrow night at 7 p.m. with a Big West Championship title and NCAA Tournament seeding on the line.
In last year’s Big West Tournament Final, an explosive UC Irvine offense netted four goals to lead the hometown Anteaters past UCSB 4-2 to deny the Gauchos their third straight conference title. This year, the outcome might be a little different. Why? Same teams, different circumstances.
For one, Santa Barbara — currently ranked #4 in the nation — will come in as the favorite, challenging #3 seeded UCI in front of a raucous home crowd that nearly broke the NCAA attendance record earlier this season with over 10,000 strong against Indiana. In addition, the Gauchos are coming in having beaten the Anteaters in both of their regular season matches — first at Harder to open conference play, and then in a double-overtime thriller at Meredith Field on Halloween. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, UCSB will have junior goalkeeper Sam Hayden between the posts in this go-around. In case you haven’t heard, the junior college transfer, with the help of a physical defensive backfield, has allowed only one goal in his past 12 games.
While the defensive pressure has been there all season, it could very well come down to the offense in this battle for Big West supremacy. Though their pair of meetings in 2009 came to a close with the Gauchos on top, both contests proved very even as characterized by identical 1-0 finals on goals that came by way of a penalty kick and a free kick sequence, respectfully.
True to their strategy of strong defense early to set up a late offensive charge, it took 72 minutes before UCSB broke through against Northridge in their semifinal match on Wednesday night, as junior defender Michael Boxall knocked in a rebounded header to seal the 1-0 victory.
All things considered, tomorrow’s game could very well end in similar fashion to all of the matches mentioned, though it remains to be seen which team will get the better of it. Either way, the fans that come out to Harder Stadium are in for a hell of a final.
“It’ll be a great final,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “I think it’s an appropriate final because it’s the two best teams [in the conference].”