The Big West Conference’s decision to cancel fall sports felt like another heartbreak that UCSB coach Tim Vom Steeg had once experienced a dozen years earlier.
Kyle Kaveny had stolen the ball just a few minutes into the Gauchos’ 2008 preseason soccer match when a Westmont player fell onto his leg, breaking his left ankle.
“He was a fifth-year senior and he was going to be one of our captains,” Vom Steeg recalled. “This was that same kind of feeling — of being sick to your stomach knowing how hard the players have worked; knowing what they had to do to get to this point.”
But UCSB’s veteran coach isn’t giving up on his 22nd season with the Gauchos. He’s hoping they can go ahead and salvage a delayed, spring schedule even if it isn’t under the auspices of the Big West.
“We know we can continue to train — we can continue to get on the field,” he said. “And frankly, we should be able to play people. But all that is still being discussed.
“When you say you’re canceling the season, it doesn’t mean the athletes just go home. Their best environment to kick a soccer ball is right here. It’s the safest place for them to do that.”
The Big West Council, a group composed of the league chancellors and presidents, cited the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for its Thursday vote to cancel a fall sports season that had already been delayed for four months. That affects men’s soccer as well as four other UCSB sports: women’s soccer, women’s volleyball, and men’s and women’s cross country.
Men’s and women’s basketball will be allowed to stick to a Big West schedule that begins Dec. 28. A decision on spring sports will be made next month, league commissioner Dan Butterly said.
“Despite a strong desire to return our fall sport student-athletes to competition, the board unanimously agreed that the resources and protocols needed to safely and equitably conduct fall, winter and spring sports seasons concurrently was not in line with those priorities nor in the best interests of our student-athletes and coaches,” Butterly said.
Vom Steeg said UCSB’s administration, from chancellor Henry Yang to athletic director John McCutcheon, have gone the extra mile to keep fall sports play. The Gauchos are one of five teams out of the Big West’s eight soccer schools that have been training in spite of the pandemic.
“I do know with certainty that UCSB would not have brought back our team for two months of practice, and paid for three tests for everybody for 10 straight weeks, if it didn’t have any intention of our playing in the spring,” he said.
The Gauchos were expected to be a national contender this season. They returned several key players including second-team All-America forward Rodney Michael from a 15-5-4 squad which advanced to the 2019 NCAA quarterfinals. Michael, a former Dunn School star, already ranks 10th in the UCSB record books with 61 career points (23 goals, 15 assists).
Also back are a pair of juniors who joined Michael on last year’s All-Big West team: nine-goal scorer Finn Ballard McBride and goalkeeper Ben Roach, a Santa Barbara High graduate whose 12 shutouts were the third-most in Gaucho history.
Vom Steeg was also getting a boost with the return of several stars from the injury redshirt list, including his own son, Carson.
“This is a team that, especially with a smaller tournament field, could arguably win a national championship,” he said. “That was especially true with our five seniors, whether it be Rodney or Carson or Will (Gillingham).
“These players have a legitimate chance to be professional players. But if we don’t play again until next August, they will have gone 20 months with no games. That can be death to a player. How do you showcase yourself?”
The Gauchos, who are currently in final examinations, were planning to return from winter break on Jan. 4 and resume training on Jan. 11. The Bryant and Sons Cup exhibition against Westmont had been scheduled for Jan. 30.
“We were going to play UOP on the first weekend of the regular season, and by all propositions would have started the conference schedule sometime around Feb. 26,” Vom Steeg said. “That was all thrown out the window by the vote on Thursday.
“These are players who’ve grown up playing the game. This is their life. This is Division 1 college soccer, one of the top programs in the country. It’ll be particularly upsetting if Berkeley is playing Stanford in April, and Loyola Marymount is playing San Diego, and we’re just hanging out not doing anything.”