UCSB senior defender Michael Boxall was voted Big West Defensive Player of the Year, yet he leads Gaucho men’s soccer in nothing except the pain he inflicts on opposing teams. Gaucho senior goalkeeper Sam Hayden ranks dead last in the Big West in saves among starting goalies, yet he was just named the conference’s Goalkeeper of the Year. So, the question is, how does one judge defense without the clear-cut statistics of other sports like baseball and basketball?

“Playing in the back, over 90 percent of your job is that communicative aspect; keeping your team organized,” Boxall explained. “Sam does that so well and we’re so organized in front of him that he doesn’t have to deal with as many shots as he would if he wasn’t as organized. Just hearing him constantly throughout the game is like music to my ears.”

[media-credit id=20037 align=”alignleft” width=”136″][/media-credit]Here are the stats that are currently available: The Gaucho defense has allowed just 15 goals in 20 matches, Hayden boasts eight shutouts this season and UCSB has outshot its opponents in every match. The UCSB defense is a wall, in large part because of this pair of seniors.

“I love the physical part of the game. I love hitting people,” Hayden said. “Pretty much every time I come out for a cross I hit someone. I almost punched Boxall in the back of the head the other night. Box is the same way. He likes showing everyone where his territory is, and if you come in there with the ball he’ll make you pay.”

Boxall was raised in Auckland, New Zealand, a country where most kids grow up with a different kind of ball in their hands.

“I used to play rugby, but I switched to soccer when I was about 10 or 11,” Boxall said. “My high school was a big rugby school, kind of like how football is here. It gets all the attention. I’m glad I switched, it’s taken me to a bunch of places I would have never been able to go and I’m very thankful to be in Santa Barbara right now.”

“Super” Sam is not exactly a California native either. He was born in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, then moved to Arizona to attend Yavapai College. There, Hayden won two consecutive NJCAA Goalkeeper of the Year awards to go along with the team’s pair of national championships. Not bad for a recruit touted as “too short,” at 5’10.”

“What I saw was somebody with unbelievable athleticism, who was getting up and over everybody, and who had hands that were incredibly big and strong,” Head Coach Vom Steeg told UCSB Athletics in a story about Hayden’s recruitment process earlier this year. “I told Stu [Dobson, UCSB’s goalkeeper coach], ‘This kid is unbelievable,’ and he goes, ‘How big is he?’ When I said 5’10”, he told me to forget it.”

Now that the two find themselves united by a common goal in UCSB’s backfield, they’ve become fast friends, joking with each other about their special relationship.

“We have this joke with one of my friends that Boxall is my number one and she’s my number two,” Hayden said with a laugh. “She doesn’t really like that too much.”

Despite Boxall’s 200-pound frame and Hayden’s affinity for throwing a punch or two in the box, they both insist the Gaucho defense is about a lot more than just starting fights with opposing teams.

“I don’t think we instigate it,” Boxall says. “With the players that we have like Chris [Hunter], Peter [McGlynn], [Michael] Tetteh and [James] Kiffe, we can basically take whatever they want to throw at us. All of us can handle the physical players, the fast speedy players, but we’re also skilled enough to handle the technically savvy players.”

Those abilities will be put on the line tonight when Gaucho soccer hosts Denver in the NCAA tournament’s first round. The two teams have not met since 2001, though the Pioneers hosted Gaucho rival Cal Poly in a 1-0 early season loss. The classic sports cliché tells players to take a season one game at a time and never to look beyond an early opponent. But with the College Cup — soccer’s version of the Final Four — being held in Santa Barbara in December, it seems an easy piece of advice to ignore.

“It’s in the back of our head, of course it is,” Hayden said. “It’s hard for it not to be. But we’re not going to get there if we don’t take care of [Denver]. It’s good motivation for us, but we have to take care of business in the games beforehand.”

Hayden and Boxall, as leaders of the team, are poised to make a run at a national title. But to beat Denver, or any other team, the Gauchos will need more than just the two of them, and they are the first to say so.

“Everyone on our squad works their asses off,” Boxall said. “You can tell when we just take over games in the second half. Other teams are just too fatigued. That’s a product of us working hard in the offseason, our coaches running us into the ground, and it seems to be paying its dividends now.”

At this stage in the season, every team has injuries and every team feels the fatigue. For this pair of seniors playing out their final games in Gaucho blue, overcoming that exhaustion is more than just an objective: It’s a necessity.

“Our goal, with the players that we have, is to go all the way,” Boxall said. “We’ve known that ever since we got knocked out by UCLA last year. That’s what we’ve been working toward for the last eight, nine months, and it’s definitely going to be a huge disappointment if we don’t.”

Boxall, along with the rest of the squad, never talks about stats, only wins. Don’t expect that to change with a month left of tournament soccer against the nation’s best.