Playoff games are never easy, and Thursday night was no exception. The key is simply to get the job done. The UCSB men’s soccer team did that, but only just, in its exciting 1-0 victory over Wofford College.
“To say that we didn’t play well in the first half is probably an understatement,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said.
He has a point. That half saw the Gauchos notch a measly one shot — a turnaround finesse effort from reserve forward Josue Madueno that was easily handled by Terrier keeper Thomas Hunter. Wofford, for its part, was not doing much better though. The South Carolinian squad played only two shots in the direction of Santa Barbara goalie Sam Hayden, and neither challenged the junior.
With half the game already over, neither team seemed to have an abundance of energy or momentum at the break. Vom Steeg made sure to address this in the locker room.
“At half-time, we had a conversation about the fact that we didn’t play well,” the head coach said. Conversation might not have been the right word. “I’ve always said that we need to have enough props [in the locker room] because it gives me enough things to kick.”
Clearly he got the message across to his team. In the second half, UCSB came out firing and never stopped. The Gauchos started the frame with three consecutive corner kicks and pressured the Terriers with 15 shots throughout the second 45. However, it was Wofford that nearly took the lead on a fluke play.
A Terrier cross around the 70th minute had Hayden coming off his line, but sophomore defender Tim Pontius misplayed his headed clearance. His diving effort went straight at the untended UCSB goal, and only by a stroke of good fortune did the Gauchos avoid an own goal. The ball sailed inches high, skimming the crossbar and keeping the score tied at zero.
Having barely dodged a major bullet, the Gauchos maintained their pressuring style and forced the Terriers into their own third. Shot after shot for UCSB missed the mark, and as the final 10 minutes rolled around, the possibility of overtime seemed more and more likely. Fortunately for Santa Barbara, it did not come to that.
With six minutes to go, sophomore midfielder Michael Tetteh launched a cross to the far post, where junior defender Michael Boxall headed it back into the pile. Senior forward David Walker was at the end of the pass and knocked the ball to the left side of the goal, catching Hunter out of position and sending the UCSB crowd into a tortilla-throwing frenzy.
“In those situations, you learn … to just put it across the goal, and give anybody a chance to put it in the back of the net,” Boxall said of his assist.
The goal held up, and when all was said and done Santa Barbara walked away with a 1-0 win. And while an NCAA win is nothing to take lightly, the Gauchos are not making much of it.
“We don’t really have enough time to dwell on this game,” Vom Steeg said. “Sunday’s a new day. … I feel like we’re poised on Sunday to take where we left off in that second half and … maybe jump out on San Diego a little bit.”
It will be undoubtedly difficult. The Gauchos are on the road at USD, and the Toreros are the #11 seed in the tournament, so they are certainly not to be taken lightly. But Vom Steeg’s squad is confident and has the talent to beat anyone. The path ahead is a tricky one, but UCSB is off on the right foot. Kickoff Sunday is at 5 p.m. at Torero Stadium in San Diego.