Stephen Manga/Daily Nexus

Following an eventful kickoff to the season during which Big West teams showed down against non-conference opponents, the Gauchos look to get dialed into league play on Friday as the squad hosts rival UC Davis (3-5) for their first conference game of the season.

UCSB has performed exceedingly well in the first half of the 2018 season. For the Gauchos, who boast a 7-4 record and are good for second place in the conference, the first match in Big West play has major implications for the remainder of the season.

“It’s the most important game of the year,” Head Coach Paul Stumpf emphasized. “Conference is our pathway to where we want to be, which is in the NCAA Tournament … but first we have to get to the Big West Tournament.”

Coach Stumpf’s 20-year tenure with UCSB is older than the lifespan of a handful of the younger players on the Santa Barbara squad that he’s coaching this year. With his experience and intuition, the Gauchos have strong hopes for conference play and an astute game plan to further improve their successful year.

“There are eight conference games; we’ve got to win four,” Stumpf said. “Four wins and 12 points has gotten [teams] into the Big West Tournament … the last couple years, we’ve lost one or two games early; we put ourselves in a deep, deep hole. That’s what we’re trying to avoid, so [Davis] is the most important game of the season for us.”

As Big West play starts up this coming weekend, here is a recap of each Big West squads’ season up to this point:

UC Riverside, 9-0-1

The Highlanders burst out of the gates in non-conference play and have shocked opponents early with an unbeaten record heading into league matches. Riverside entered the season projected to finish in the seventh spot in the Big West but has reflected sheer dominance prior to conference play. The squad is 8-0 when competing on its home pitch this year and has only allowed one single goal in the first half of the season. This week, the team received votes in the United Soccer Coaches Poll for the first time this season and ranks third in regional rankings. Riverside will travel to Cal State Fullerton for its first conference matchup.

Hawaii, 5-3-1

Hawaii enters Big West play coming off back-to-back wins following the Rainbow Wahine Shootout tournament that was hosted by the squad. The Rainbow Wahine, who were projected to finish in ninth place in the Big West preseason poll, have surprised many in the front half of the season with winning records both at home and on the road. Hawaii opens league play on Friday evening as the team makes a road trip to UC Irvine.

CSU Northridge, 4-3-1

The Matadors have shifted their focus to their first opponent of conference play, Cal Poly SLO, for a Friday evening road matchup. CSUN is unbeaten while on the road this season but sits at 0-3 while playing at home this year. The squad enters Big West play following a convincing 2-0 victory against Cal State Bakersfield last week.  Northridge opened the year in the projected fourth spot of the Big West preseason poll.

Long Beach State, 5-4-1

Cal State Long Beach was forecasted to finish in the second spot of the Big West entering the 2018 season. Although the Dirtbags have struggled on the road this season with a 1-3 record, all four losses on the season have come against ranked teams: No. 2 USC, No. 8 University of Texas, No. 16 UCLA and No. 23 University of Auburn. Having significant experience against top-25 teams, Long Beach State is still considered a major contender in the Big West conference and a possible favorite for many analysts. The Dirtbags travel to Cal State Fullerton on Thursday for the first Big West Conference game of the year.

UC Irvine, 4-5-1

Similarly to Long Beach, the Anteaters suffered a tough loss to No. 2 USC early on in the year. Of the five losses that Irvine has dropped this season, the Anteaters have been shutout in four games. The year kicked off with a first-place projection for Irvine, yet the squad has struggled as of late following a five-game road trip throughout September during which Irvine went 2-3 over that span. Hawaii travels to UC Irvine on Friday evening to kick of its Big West schedule.

UC Davis, 3-5-2

The Aggies opened the year hosting the number-one team in the country as they suffered a tough loss to Stanford. The squad bounced back with a promising August, finishing the month with a 3-2 record, but they haven’t recorded a win throughout all of September. Davis was projected to finish in the fifth spot of the Big West preseason poll and opens conference play on a road trip to UCSB on Friday evening.

Cal State Fullerton, 3-7-1

While the Titans were projected to finish the season in the third spot of the Big West conference, Fullerton has struggled immensely this season, particularly on the road. CSUF has a 1-4-1 record in away games this year as the team has allowed 1.5 goals against per game on average. Following four straight losses, the Titans host Long Beach State on Thursday evening to open up Big West competition.

Cal Poly SLO, 0-8-3

It’s been a disappointing season so far for the Mustangs as they have yet to win a game during non-conference play. Granted, the team has faced a plethora of ranked opponents this year, but they have been blown out by three or more goals in each of the games. The Mustangs are projected to finish in eighth place in the Big West Conference this year, as the team hosts a stiff CSUN squad for its first Big West matchup of the year.

A version of this story appeared on page 06 in the September 27th print edition of the Daily Nexus.