College Cup Post-Op

NCAA Final Four Played in “Soccer Heaven”

NCAA Soccer Men's College Cup championship Akron fans celebrate Dec. 12, 2010
Paul Wellman

Shortly after UCSB won the NCAA men’s soccer championship in frigid St. Louis four years ago, Gaucho fans hoisted a soccer goal from Harder Stadium, carried it on a triumphant parade through Isla Vista, and deposited it in the surf.

The goals stayed in place after the University of Akron Zips won the 2010 College Cup title at UCSB earlier this month. Instead, the entire Akron team and coaches waded into the ocean off East Beach and frolicked in the waves last Sunday evening.

It was an appropriate way to end a weekend in which “Soccer Heaven” was not an exaggerated description of the environment UCSB provided for the NCAA final four. Of course, the weather was so splendid that Santa Barbara could also have been designated “Picnic Heaven,” “Walking Heaven,” “Shopping Heaven,” or “Sunset Heaven,” to name just a few of the meteorologically enhanced events. In the case of Akron’s 1-0 victory over Louisville on Sunday, the number of people who enjoyed the sun-kissed spectacle at Harder Stadium was counted: 9,672.

That was the largest attendance for the NCAA soccer final since the last time it was held on the West Coast, in 2004, when 13,601 turned out at the Home Depot Center in Carson to watch UCSB play Indiana. It’s safe to say that number would have been topped had the Gauchos earned a berth in this year’s finals.

The Gaucho Locos who stuck around bonded with Akron’s most ardent supporters, the AK-Rowdies. They stood together Sunday behind the goal at the south end of the stadium. That’s where Scott Caldwell scored the game-winning goal in the second half. Zips coach Caleb Porter was not surprised. “It seems we always scored at that end [where the Rowdies hang out in home games],” Porter said. “It’s like they’re a vacuum sucking the ball into the net.”

Although Akron enjoyed the favoritism of area fans—because the Zips, like the Gauchos, put a special emphasis on soccer, and they had eliminated UCSB’s nemesis, the Cal Bears, from the tournament—the other participating schools had nothing but praise for Santa Barbara’s presentation of the College Cup. Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Mark Massari’s executive associate athletics directors Diane O’Brien and Tom Hastings were instrumental in preparing for and pulling off the big event. The entire athletic staff pitched in.

UCSB should be a serious player when future College Cups—the next available one will be in 2012—come up for bid. There has been some talk of combining both the men’s and women’s final fours into a four-day event at the same site. It would suit ESPN, which televises both tournaments, and the soccer media. “If that’s the only way we could get the tournament back here, I think we would go for it,” O’Brien said. “We got the hard part over with this year.”

There is one unpredictable factor. “We can’t take credit for the weather,” O’Brien said. “But we know it won’t be snowing.” There was supposed to be a rally to welcome Akron’s soccer champions back to their campus Tuesday, but it was canceled. The university was closed down because of inclement weather.

The Zips will return to Santa Barbara for a game against the Gauchos on October 5, 2011. Expect a friendly climate but not-so-friendly fans.

CLOSING IN: Former UCSB women’s basketball guard and assistant coach Cori Close is the associate head coach at Florida State. The Seminoles will play at Connecticut next Tuesday, December 21, the night UConn will go for a record 89th consecutive victory (if the Huskies get by Ohio State on Sunday). “I’ve had to work hard to keep it in perspective,” Close said. “It’s on SportsCenter every morning. Our players are sick of it. Everybody asks you what you think about Connecticut.” For Close, the coming confrontation is personal. She had a stint on the UCLA coaching staff and became very close to the late John Wooden—“my second grandfather,” she said—who coached the Bruins through their phenomenal 88-game streak four decades ago.

GAMES OF THE WEEK: San Marcos faces Santa Barbara High in a Channel League basketball opener at 7 p.m. on Friday, December 17, at the SBCC Sports Pavilion. … Pre-Christmas hoop tournaments include the Jim Bashore Holiday Cage Classic, featuring 10 boys teams at Carpinteria High (Dec. 17, 18, 20, and 21) and the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions, a gathering of 32 girls teams playing from morning to night at S.B. High, Dos Pueblos, and San Marcos (Dec. 20-23). … The most challenging date on UCSB’s basketball schedule is Saturday, when the Gaucho men visit San Diego State (7pm). The unbeaten Aztecs are the West Coast’s best team, ranked No. 10 on the ESPN/USA Today poll and No. 11 by the Associated Press. … The Gaucho women are traveling to New York to face Fresno State on Saturday at the St. John’s Tournament.