With a chance to prove that it is a team on the rise, the UCSB women’s soccer team opens up conference play this weekend with two big games against Long Beach and Fullerton.
UC Santa Barbara, which finished its nonconference schedule at a respectable 5-5-2, has a chance to make a big statement to the rest of the Big West with two strong performances to start league play.
“We already know that we can compete,” Head Coach Paul Stumpf said. “Of the 12 nonconference games we’ve had, one of the consistent things we’ve had this year is a competitive spirit and work ethic. We need to get a result whether it is a win or a tie, to prove to ourselves we can get that type of result.”
Long Beach (7-3-1) is unbeaten in their previous four matches, having won the previous three by a combined score of 11-1. The defending Big West champions defeated the Gauchos last season on their own turf 3-1, but UCSB has a chance on Friday to show they are an improved team from a year ago.
“If we beat Long Beach we can beat anybody,” sophomore midfielder Erica Shelton said. “Last year we didn’t end with a good result against them, so just beating them this year, or coming out with a tie would be really big for us.”
Coming off a 1-1 double overtime tie at Bakersfield last Sunday, UCSB continues to prove it has the defensive ability to play with the best teams, something they will need to show against a 49ers team that averages nearly 2.5 goals per game.
“Our defense has been working really well together and these past couple of games have definitely shown a collective effort to pay attention to defense,” sophomore goalkeeper Makenna Henry said. “It’s going to be a challenge but I think we will be able to really step up and show them you aren’t just going to get a goal, you’re going to have to work for it.”
A key Long Beach player that Henry and the rest of the defense will have to keep their eye on is junior forward Nadia Link who leads the team and the Big West with 10 goals on the season.
“Nadia moves around trying to pick on the weakest defender she can find — smartly.” Stumpf said. “The best thing we can do is keep the ball on her right foot because she is a pretty natural left-footed player.”
After trailing for the majority of the game against Bakersfield, the team has put an emphasis on coming out strong early in the game and not falling behind to a team that certainly has the offensive firepower to pull away.
“We know they’re a good team but we’re not going to start off being intimidated by them,” Shelton said. “We want to attack before they start attacking. We want to maybe put away a goal first, and, hopefully, not give up any.”
Allowing only one goal during a three-game unbeaten streak, the Gauchos seem confident in their ability to shut down the 49ers and start conference play with an important victory.
“If we can keep up or even beat a team like Long Beach that will set us up perfectly for the rest of conference,” Henry said. “I think getting a shutout is doable and all we need to have is a collective effort.”
Fullerton (5-4-2) will attempt to upend the Gauchos after falling 2-0 last year on their home field. Coming off a five-game unbeaten streak, the Titans will travel to Cal Poly before taking their shot at UCSB on Sunday.
“Whether we win, lose or tie [against Long Beach] we won’t take Fullerton lightly because they’re doing really well this season already,” Shelton said. “We’ll come out hard just like if it was anyone else.”
Henry had a word of warning for the Titans on Sunday.
“If we win [against Long Beach], Fullerton should be really worried,” Henry said. “When our team gets momentum it’s kind of hard to stop us unless we essentially hurt ourselves.”
Senior midfielder Cory Yoshida was lost for the season last Sunday due to injury, but UCSB has no doubt the rest of the team will step up to replace the captain.
“She’ll definitely be missed but we have a lot of pride right now and a lot of team camaraderie,” Henry said. “I’m sure whoever is going to step up into that role will do it at 100 percent.”
Confidence is on the line this week for the Gauchos, and two victories can go a long way in deciding how the rest of the season will play out.
“A home game under the lights, you can’t ask for a better setup,” Henry said. “Now it’s just mental preparation and a solid practice [Thursday night], and I think we will be ready to go.”
UCSB begins conference play Friday night at Harder Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.