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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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