UCSB's title run almost too good to be true

December 4, 2006
Burns OrtizBy Maria Burns
(Archive)

The UC Santa Barbara men's soccer title run reads like fiction. Actually, it's probably better than anything most writers could come up with, so it's better to just go with the true story.

The story goes something like this:

Once upon a time, not that long ago, an unseeded team called the Gauchos made it into the NCAA soccer tournament. This was a team that started the season 7-6, suffering two losses in a competitive, but by no means powerhouse conference. The players spent a number of early-season bus rides home in silence, as loss after loss mounted and coach Tim Vom Steeg struggled to turn things around. The coach wanted to throw his hands up in the air. Nothing it seemed was working.

Avila, Reed
APEric Avila slots home UCSB's second goal against the Bruins.

Suddenly, it started to click. The wins started to come, one after another, as the Gauchos went 5-1 in their last 6 regular-season games. The team waited to see if that would be enough to get invited to the tournament. After all, teams with far less than six losses didn't get the call.

But the Gauchos received an at-large bid, winning their first-round game over San Diego State. Then, UCSB knocked off the No. 1 team in the nation, a SMU team that had been nearly unbeatable.

Maybe there was some kind of transference, as the Gauchos took on that role, eventually becoming the No. 1 team in the nation themselves.

They went on to end another team's Cinderella season. After all, there's only room for one glass slipper-cleated team in the men's soccer version of the Big Dance.

The team from Southern California flew to St. Louis, where the semifinal round of games was delayed a day for a very un-Southern-California-like reason -- a blizzard.

It didn't matter. The Gauchos upset the No. 2 seed in the tournament, beating Wake Forest, thereby advancing to take on UCLA in the championship.

As the odds had been all along, they were heavily against the Gauchos heading into the final. UCLA held a 32-1 advantage in meetings with the Gauchos. That lone win came in 1982, before any of the team's current players were born.

Of course, it wouldn't be much of a story if the Gauchos lost here, so, obviously, they don't.

The Gauchos went on to take a 2-0 lead over UCLA, eventually winning 2-1. Sophomore Eric Avila notched what would be the game-winning goal early in the second half.

It's likely too early to say the team lived happily ever after, but it was probably a very enjoyable flight back home.

The turning point

Two months ago, it was safe to say Vom Steeg wasn't thrilled about his team. He let his disappointment be known. He told them he was considering giving up on them this season. After going 7-6, he asked his players what else was he supposed to do, and gave them one last chance.

That was all they needed. The following game, a truly inspired team took the field for the first time all season. The coach decided to let the team continue to ride that intensity as far as it would get them. However, at the time, it was hard to imagine that momentum would take his team all the way to the national championship game.

Then, the Gauchos beat Southern Methodist. The Mustangs had just one loss all season and were undefeated at home, but UCSB came away with a 3-1 upset and advanced to the Sweet 16.

"After the game, I told the guys, 'I'm still not sure if I like you yet, but now at least there's a chance that I might,'" Vom Steeg said following the SMU victory.

His affection for the team undoubtedly grew as his players rose to the challenge with every passing game.

Yet, there was little time to reflect on the huge win. After traveling to Dallas with just one game's worth of clothes -- the thinking being that the Gauchos would either be knocked out by the Mustangs or win and get a home game -- UCSB was instead scrambling to buy tickets to Norfolk and get laundry done.

A 2-1 win over Old Dominion earned the Gauchos a ticket to the Elite Eight, where they knocked off a Northwestern squad making a similar run. The UCSB team that had only packed for one night when it traveled to SMU was now packing its bags for the College Cup.

A 4-3 win over Wake Forest on penalty kicks, after a scoreless regulation, sent UCSB to the title game. The victory over UCLA made the Gauchos reigning national champions.

Now, it won't come as a shock if Vom Steeg's feelings toward his team have grown into love. This is just Santa Barbara's second national title in any sport at the Division I level. The only other one came in water polo in 1979, years before any of the school's newest crop of national champions was born.

A reason to party

The joy wasn't just limited to St. Louis. After all, UCSB is well known for its boisterous, at times rowdy, sometimes out-of-control (and if you're an opponent, potentially obnoxious) fan base.

Sure, the title game might have been 2,000 miles away, but little things like distance have rarely stopped students at UCSB from finding a reason to celebrate -- especially when fanfare is well warranted. When the team advanced to the Final Four in 2004, the fans stormed the field and tore down the goals at Harder Stadium.

It earned the ire of some, but showed a level of fan enthusiasm rarely seen in college soccer.

According to UCSB alum Mike, the "Gaucho Locos" have surpassed the "goal incident of '04."

"Our goal is now nicely placed in the Pacific Ocean," he wrote in an e-mail to me, following Sunday's win. "After we won, a group of fans, which turned into a few thousand, went to Harder Stadium, grabbed the goal and took it to Del Playa where they proceeded to throw it over the cliff onto the beach. It was then taken into the water."

Beach soccer -- and who knows what else -- ensued. But considering this has been a once in a lifetime event for most UCSB students and even a number of alumni, this party has been a long time coming. One, they hope to repeat next season.

Maria Burns covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet and is a writer and columnist for The News-Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Ind.). She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com.