GAME TO BE BROADCAST ON KCSB.ORG
Going into UCSB’s last game, the Gauchos were the #4 team in the nation and riding high into the NCAA tournament. Then UC Irvine changed everything.
After a 4-1 drubbing at the hands of the Anteaters in the Big West Tournament finale, there are a lot of questions encircling this UCSB squad as it enters its 8th consecutive postseason. Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg, for his part, is not concerned.
“If anything, losing that last game to Irvine helps us,” Vom Steeg said. “[The loss] changes our focus level going into the playoffs.”
Despite the loss, there was little doubt that the Gauchos were tournament bound. The question was where to — and when?
The answer came Monday, when the NCAA announced the bracket and UCSB found itself with a first-round matchup at home against the Wofford College Terriers. While the Gauchos did not receive a first round bye, rewarded to the 16 top-seeded teams, the result could have been worse.
“I thought the draw was actually pretty good,” Vom Steeg said. “I was a little concerned that they would make us the 16 seed… [where] you’ve got to go to Akron.”
For the record, that was the fate that befell Irvine. The Anteaters have a bye and a home game, but are slated for a third round matchup at #1 Akron, a team that is 20-0-0 and seemingly unbeatable. The Gauchos, meanwhile, would stay West until the quarterfinals, likely facing off against San Diego and UCLA if they keep winning.
“I’m fine with it,” Vom Steeg said. “We have to be ready to play tomorrow night, and we will be.”
Wofford presents interesting challenges to UCSB, however. The Terriers are in their best season ever, turning around years of misery in the Southern Conference and notching a 12-win season and their first-ever league title. Ten seniors anchor the squad — a stark contrast to the Gauchos’ three — and they will undoubtedly bring their A-game to Harder. However, one could be forgiven for not knowing much about the tiny South Carolina school in advance.
“Here’s what we do know,” Vom Steeg said. “They’re a team that has 12 wins; only lost twice. They’ve got lots of seniors. This group came together and put together a really good season. And the word that I got from a bunch of coaches is that they really believe they can win.”
To win, Wofford will need to get past what is usually a super sturdy UCSB back line and an incredible homefield advantage. Prior to last year’s second-round loss to Cal, the Gauchos had never lost a home playoff game. The average attendance at Harder this year will lead the league for the third consecutive season and figures to break several NCAA records as well.
As for the defense, UCSB has 14 shutouts and had given up only one goal in its last 12 matches before Irvine opened the floodgates last Saturday.
Furthermore, on the topic of accomplishments, the Gauchos’ dominated the Big West Awards this week, winning four of the six big ones and having 10 players named all-conference. Senior defender Martin Hedevag, junior goalkeeper Sam Hayden and sophomore midfielder Danny Barrera all received Player of the Year honors at their respective positions, and midfielder Machael David won Freshman of the Year. But all these accolades from the regular season are meaningless come playoff time and Vom Steeg is well aware of that.
“It’s a new season, everybody’s 0-0, and we’re pleased to be in the playoffs for the 8th consecutive time.”
Two of those times, the end of that road was in the National Championship. Only time will tell where the Gauchos land this year.