On their 10th consecutive foray into the NCAA Division 1 men’s soccer tournament, the UCSB Gauchos tried, but they could not muster the magic that had culminated in a national championship in 2006. The Gauchos’ vaunted attack was stalled by the nation’s best defense, and the Creighton Bluejays prevailed by a 2-1 score last Sunday.
The “Sweet 16” match took place on Creighton’s home field in Omaha, Nebraska, where temperatures hovered in the 30s. “It was the coldest weather I’ve ever been in,” said James Kiffe, a UCSB senior who grew up in Santa Barbara. For Kiffe, the end of his college playing career was doubly frustrating. He was able to last only 15 minutes in the second half on a badly injured left ankle.
“I wanted to go in, because I couldn’t sit out potentially my last game,” he said. “But I was useless. I couldn’t kick with my left foot.” Kiffe had propelled the Gauchos with that foot during the season, roaming the left flank, picking up balls, and dribbling and driving them forward. He was named the Defender of the Year in the Big West Conference. “It’s a little surprising,” Kiffe said, noting that he was not strictly a defender. “Tim Pontius could have gotten the award, and Fifi Baiden deserved more recognition.” Baiden, a sophomore, was UCSB’s central defensive midfielder. “He was very selfless and had a tremendous work rate,” Kiffe said.
The Gauchos will move on without senior starters Kiffe, Pontius, and the talented Luis Silva, who earned all-conference honors for the fourth straight year, his best ever with a collage of beautiful touches, including 17 goals. Junior forward Sam Garza was a preseason nomination for the national player of the year award, but Garza insisted, “Luis is the best player in the nation.”
Kiffe was a San Marcos High soccer standout when the Gauchos had their NCAA championship team. “I came and watched them,” he said. “It was like a pro game with Andy Iro and those guys.” Kiffe played a year at SBCC before transferring to UCSB. He worked his way into the starting lineup in 2010. That season ended in a controversial 2-1 overtime loss at UC Berkeley.
“It’s disappointing to end my career in ridiculous games,” Kiffe said. The Gauchos had to deal with an adverse referee’s decision at Creighton. The Bluejays took a 1-0 lead in the opening minutes on a penalty goal awarded for a foul on a corner kick. “It was a joke,” Kiffe said. “Their guy flopped on the ground. It happened away from the ball. I try to be as objective as I can, but for the last two years, the calls haven’t gone our way.”
That’s the price the Gauchos have to pay when they go on the road with a reputation for belligerence. “We’re never the underdog,” Kiffe said. “We have to be that much better than the other team. Against Creighton, we weren’t.” He had to admit the Bluejays outplayed the Gauchos. “They could have gone ahead 3-0 when a guy tripped over his own feet on a breakaway,” Kiffe said. UCSB cut the margin to 2-1 late in the second half on a goal by David Opoku, only the second goal allowed by Creighton in 13 home games. That gave the Gauchos hope, but it flickered out like a match struck in the frigid Nebraska air.
SEMI TOUGH: SBCC has reached the semifinals of the State Community College men’s soccer tournament for the first time since 1998, when the Vaqueros made their fourth Final Four appearance under Tim Vom Steeg, who subsequently took over UCSB’s program. The current Vaqueros, coached by John Sisterson, have won nine straight games and are 18-1-4 overall. They defeated Golden West in the quarterfinals, 2-0, on extra-time goals by Duran Stanley and Rodrigo Perez. They will face Hartnell on Friday, December 2, at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento. … Bishop Diego will play top-seeded Sierra Canyon in the CIF East Valley Division football semifinals Friday night at Granada Hills High. The Cardinals won their 11th straight last week, 21-14, at Twentynine Palms. Sophomore linebacker Christian Pearson spearheaded Bishop’s defense with 20 tackles (nine solo, 11 assists). If the Cardinals upset Sierra Canyon, they would either host Rim of the World or travel to Paraclete in Lancaster for the championship Saturday, December 10.
RESPECT: Back in the not-so-good days of UCSB basketball (1982-83 season), after UNLV shrugged off the Gauchos’ attempt to pull an upset, Rebel star Sidney Green said, “We didn’t come all this way to lose to San Bernardino.” Flash forward to last Saturday night, after UNLV upset No. 1-ranked North Carolina. What was on the winners’ minds? “[Going] to Santa Barbara,’’ sophomore Mike Moser said. The Runnin’ Rebels were scheduled to play UCSB on Wednesday night, and they hadn’t forgotten losing to the Gauchos last year. Moser said the game would be “just as big as this one [the victory over the Tar Heels] for us.”