Fateful victory

Gaucho Men’s Soccer Best in the Nation

by Ethan Stewart

04soccer.span.jpgEven the staunchest skeptic would have a hard time denying that higher forces seemed to be at work in recent weeks as the UCSB men’s soccer team marched to its first-ever national championship title, which the team earned last weekend on a bitterly cold, ice-covered pitch in St. Louis, Missouri. Unseeded and just a matter of months removed from a very mediocre mid-season record of 7-6, the Gauchos played a nearly flawless brand of soccer during their tournament run, culminating in a hard fought 2-1 victory over UCLA on Sunday afternoon and only the university’s second national championship in any sport.

The Gauchos’ road to their second championship match in three years was not free of trials: They strung together come-from-behind wins and an upset over soccer powerhouse Northwestern University in the quarterfinals before they even made it to their scheduled final four showdown with the Demon Deacons of Wake Forest last Friday night. But before the Gauchos could take the field against the number two seed Wake Forest squad, Mother Nature weighed in with a brutal bout of winter weather, leaving much of the St. Louis area without power and postponing the match until Saturday. When the game did finally get underway, the two teams battled the elements and each other for 110 minutes with nary a goal, thanks to the truly stellar play of senior goalkeeper Tyler Reynish. It wasn’t until a back-and-forth exchange of penalty kicks — in which the Gauchos ultimately prevailed with yet another come-from-behind 4-3 win — that UCSB’s chance to play for a national championship was finalized.

With the unseasonably early winter storm beginning to thaw, the Gaucho squad took the field Sunday afternoon against UCLA, a team they had beaten only once before in 32 previous meetings. But the boys buried old history, charging out to a commanding 2-0 lead thanks to tallies from sophomore Nick Perera and Eric Avila. After a brutal back-and-forth, several squandered opportunities on the part of UCLA, and a few close calls for the Gauchos’ offense, the Bruins got on the board late in the second half with a 79th-minute goal from Jason Leopoldo. With the score now 2-1 — and the Bruins no doubt tasting blood — the Gaucho defense buckled down and played some of their best soccer of the day, repeatedly stymieing a desperate and relentless last-ditch offensive push from the Bruins that included several dangerous crosses and penalty and corner kicks.

With the clock ticking away and the ball finally cleared to the Bruins’ end of the field, it was obvious to all those in attendance and the thousands watching at home on ESPN2 that dreams really do come true: the UCSB men’s soccer team was the NCAA champion for 2006. As the final horn sounded in the cold Midwest air, and fans and family streamed onto the field, car horns and shouts of joy could be heard throughout the streets of Isla Vista. It was the first national championship for any Gaucho team since the water polo team pulled it off in 1979, and the occasion was not going to be overlooked by a community that knows the joy of a good party.

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