A trivia question for new UCSB students: How many NCAA Division 1 championships have been won by Gaucho sports teams?
The answer is two: men’s water polo in 1979 and men’s soccer in 2006.
Those are not trivial accomplishments. In the business of college sports, where extravagantly funded programs breed success (UCLA has won 118 national titles), UCSB’s modest outlay leaves it in a scrappy state. The two NCAA trophies on display in the Gaucho Athletic Hall of Fame — known as the Phil Womble Hall of Champions — are like precious Rembrandts in a small-town art museum.
The water polo title was so meaningful that the 1979 Gauchos have remained best friends over the years, and most of the players will return to the campus to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their accomplishment next week.
The soccer championship was so special that UCSB dubbed Harder Stadium — built for football in the 1960s — “Soccer Heaven,” bringing the NCAA’s College Cup here in 2010 and 2018. It will return in 2020.
In both sports, the Gauchos are making waves in 2019, especially in water polo, where visions of another championship are coming into focus.
WE’RE NO. 1: The undefeated (13-0) Gauchos will be on top when the national water polo rankings come out this week. They have knocked off the two previous No. 1 teams: USC, the defending national champion, by a 13-9 score at the Inland Empire Classic two weeks ago; and Stanford, a 15-10 thumping in Palo Alto last Friday. With a 21-7 win at Fresno Pacific on Saturday, they eclipsed the school record of 12 consecutive wins.
Dave Hendrickson, cocaptain of the 1979 team, attended UCSB’s demolition of Stanford and saw familiar qualities. “The way they played, passing the ball, looking for teammates, was exceptional,” he said.
Teamwork was the Gauchos’ hallmark 40 years ago. In their pivotal 10-9 NCAA semifinal win over Stanford, five players each scored two goals. Six scored in the final when they buried UCLA, 11-3. “We worked so hard,” Hendrickson said. “Being the first UCSB team to win it all, it cemented our social circle to this day.”
Craig Wilson, their goalkeeper, went on to defend the cage for the U.S. team in three Olympic Games, winning two silver medals. “For me, the Olympics was just icing,” Wilson said. “Santa Barbara’s championship was the cake.”
The core of the ’79ers came together in later years to form the Santa Barbara Masters water polo team. At the 2017 FINA World Masters Championships in Hungary, they won the gold medal in the over-55 division. “Nine of the 13 players were on our UCSB team,” Hendrickson said.
The 2019 Gauchos still have a lot of work to do to create a new legacy, but they are off to a good start. They proved themselves under pressure in their home opener last Thursday, when Pepperdine came at them with all barrels blazing. The game had numerous lead changes and went into two overtime periods. The Waves took a 15-14 lead into the final 40 seconds, but the Gauchos tied the score on a clutch penalty shot by sophomore Nathan Puentes and won it, 16-15, on a sensational goal by junior Cole Brosnan.
A pass to the middle of the pool was intercepted by a Pepperdine player. Brosnan alertly forced a “ball under,” which resulted in a turnover, and, immediately taking possession, he whipped a 20-foot backhanded shot that scored with three seconds remaining.
“An amazing shot,” said Wolf Wigo, UCSB’s 14-year head coach. “I’ve never seen a play quite like it.”
“One of the craziest matches ever,” said Gaucho attacker Spencer Wood. “This is the most fun team I’ve ever played on.” Wood, a junior out of San Marcos High, was one of nine Gauchos who scored in the game.
It was a sign of the team’s maturity that less than 24 hours later, following a morning bus ride, the Gauchos confidently took down the No. 1 team on the road. “We’ve had some real battles,” Wigo said after the Pepperdine match. “We’ll be ready for Stanford.”
UCSB will play in the SoCal Invitational at UCLA this weekend. The hosting Bruins were ranked No. 2 last week. Stanford, Cal, Pepperdine, and USC are also in the tournament.
The ’79ers and their coach, Pete Snyder, will be there when the Gauchos play their next home match against USC at noon on Sunday, October 6. Nostalgia will be in the air. UCSB’s Campus Pool, which Hendrickson described as “a leaking cement box,” remains the water polo team’s antiquated home. A turn-away crowd is expected for the match against the Trojans.
SOCCER HEAVEN: The Gauchos also won their national soccer championship at the expense of UCLA, defeating the Bruins, 2-1, at St. Louis 13 years ago. For the next nine years, UCSB led the NCAA in soccer attendance. The largest crowd ever to watch a regular-season game at a campus site was the 15,896 that showed up to see the Gauchos shut out UCLA, 2-0, in 2010.
The Gauchos have not qualified for the NCAA tournament since 2015. A 1-6-1 road record did them in last year. The new season began with a reversal of fortunes. UCSB lost two straight home matches — Virginia Tech and Cal shellacked them, 6-1 — and went on the road facing what goalkeeper Ben Roach called “must-win” situations. They came through, blanking Gonzaga, 1-0, and rallying past Oregon State, 3-2.
Back at Harder, the Gauchos extended their winning streak last week by stopping Seattle, 1-0, and Maryland-Baltimore County, 4-0. “We have to keep getting clean sheets [shutouts] and scoring goals,” Roach said. The sophomore keeper from Santa Barbara High carries a lot of weight on his shoulders because the Gauchos have lost several defenders to injuries and two more — Noah Billingsley and Hunter Ashworth — are down under trying out for the New Zealand U-23 national team.
UCSB hosts Stanford in a marquee match Saturday night. The Cardinal are known for their lock-down defense. The Gauchos’ attack looked encouraging against UMBC, as midfielder Thibault Candia, a senior from Paris, scored their first hat trick since 2010. “Being able to score three goals is always a plaisir,” Candia said. You can say that again, in any language.