Soccer is a cruel sport, and UCSB learned that the hard way Sunday night. The best-played 45 minutes of the Gauchos’ season proved to be their last, as UCLA somehow held onto a 2-1 lead and ended Santa Barbara’s College Cup dreams in the NCAA Tournament third round.

“It’s soccer. This happens,” senior defender Martin Hedevag said.

Hedevag, having just completed what was likely his last game in a Gaucho uniform (though he may be eligible for a partial medical redshirt next year should he choose to seek it), perfectly summed up his team’s emotional state with those four words. It was a subdued exasperation — a resigned acknowledgement that sometimes the breaks just go the other way.

After all, the Gauchos ran the Bruins ragged in the second half, applying 45 minutes of constant pressure to the UCLA defense and firing 11 shots. Some bounced wide, some missed high, some were blocked and some were saved, but none found the back of the net. And since the first half had fallen one goal in UCLA’s favor, the second-frame dominance was but a bitter consolation to a Gaucho squad left asking ‘What if?’

“You can’t win a game like this if you don’t put it away,” Hedevag said. “We gave it all we had, and we created a lot of chances, we just couldn’t score.”

He felt the frustration firsthand, having his equalizing header glance inches wide of the post late in the match. Between that shot and a plethora of opportunities from just about every player in a UCSB jersey, the Gauchos just could not catch a break when it mattered most. However, the match started on a much different note.

Just over 10 minutes into the game, sophomore midfielder Peter McGlynn launched a cross into the box, where senior forward David Walker was waiting to volley the ball into the net from short range. The early score resulted in an eruption of support from the boisterous and numerous UCSB contingent (which substantially outnumbered the home crowd), and the momentum was fully in Santa Barbara’s favor.

But the game turned four minutes later, when a UCLA corner kick equalized the game at one apiece. LA defender Andy Rose found the ball at his feet after the kick and launched it on goal, but goalkeeper Sam Hayden was in good position and knocked the ball away. The ricochet went straight to forward Fernando Monge, who wasted no time cleaning up the scraps and tying the score.

With the momentum back to the home side, the Bruins began to pressure the Gaucho defense more and more. Things got worse for UCSB as Walker and fellow forward Waid Ibrahim left the pitch with minor injuries, leaving a depleted front line to carry the load in the first half.

Then, in the 37th minute, disaster struck for Santa Barbara. Sloppy defense allowed the Bruins an odd-man rush, and they capitalized brilliantly. Forward Ryan Hollingshead ran a perfect give and go with senior midfielder Kyle Nakazawa (who, along with Walker, was one of the game’s few holdovers from the 2006 National Championship) and Nakazawa played the final pass on the money. Hollingshead capitalized, slotting the ball past the left-out-to-dry Hayden and giving UCLA the eventual game-winning goal.

At halftime, the score read 2-1, and Los Angeles looked capable of running away with the game. However, UCSB Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg had some half-time magic up his sleeve for the third consecutive match. This time, though, it had less to do with prop-kicking and more to do with an appeal to resiliency, and putting together a performance to make the Gaucho faithful proud.

“There is nothing like [the Gaucho Locos] in college soccer,” Vom Steeg said, referencing the advantage that the plentiful SB fans brought with them. “There is absolutely nothing like it. They’re vocal, they’re excited to be there… and that’s what the halftime speech was. …Ultimately, as a fan, you want to feel proud about your team. You want your team to go out and put everything they have on the field. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t when it comes to the result, and tonight we fell one short.”

One short maybe, but oh so close. Had any of the Gaucho chances gone in, Vom Steeg had faith in his team’s ability to pull out the win.

“I think we all felt good that if we tied that game up the momentum would have swung back on our side,” he said. “And I think we could finish them, but we just didn’t get that second goal.”

Sometimes, that’s the way it breaks. One bounce here, one call there, and Santa Barbara might be going to Wake Forest for the quarterfinals instead of UCLA. The beautiful game, even when played beautifully, is an unpredictable one

But even the most cautious prognosticators would have to feel good about UCSB’s chances in the future. The Gauchos graduate only two starters from this year’s 17-5-2 squad, and figure to have a stellar 2010 campaign. As for the 2009 season, Gaucho fans will invariably wonder what could have been.

But regardless of the end result, one thing is certain at season’s end: This was a team that fans were proud to call their own.