The fall season effectively ended on Saturday, with the UCSB men’s soccer team and Westmont women’s volleyball closing out what was a banner season on the South Coast.
A CIF water polo championship (congrats, Dons!); an epic CIF football championship in town; a magical run to the NCAA Elite Eight; a team in the NAIA women’s volleyball championship; and a 15-year drought snapped.
Those endings are an accumulation of moments that should not be forgotten.
Considering that our team of reporters traveled to all corners of the county all season long — simply put, like no other — there were many moments to take in.
In taking a step back, here are my Top 5 moments of the Fall, not for the results, but for the heart shown . . .
The team-first moment
It was a chilly night at Harder Stadium, and the host Gauchos had managed to force overtime against the No. 1 team in the land, Stanford. Tied at 3, the visiting Cardinal were knocking on the door late in the first overtime, including a corner kick that saw a multitude of players in the air. Moments later, one unfortunately remained on the ground, with UCSB senior Faouzi Taeib writhing in agony. Was it a broken leg? Torn ligaments in the ankle? It didn’t really matter, you could hear a pin drop as an ambulance arrived to rush Faouzi to the hospital. While the Gauchos managed to secure that 3-3 tie with Stanford, the wind was definitely out of the team’s sails. Without their senior, the UCSB back line might be in deep trouble. Yet, weeks later, our beat reporter, Gerry Fall, said that it might have be an old injury and that there was a good chance Faouzi would return — this season. And that he did, in a major way. Returning just under a month later at Cal State Northridge, Faouzi helped stabilize the Gauchos’ enormous back line, going 5-2-1 after his return, including a run to the Elite Eight with three victories over Cal, St. Mary’s and Indiana. Faouzi was willing to put the team first, and no box score can do him justice.
The beyond-his-years moment
It was heartbreaking to see the Santa Barbara Golden Tornado lose the Div. 8 CIF football title in front of their home crowd. Yet, in the aftermath of the loss, quarterback Deacon Hill stopped to talk to our reporter, Mitchell White. Yes, tears in his eyes, but he stopped and graciously answered tough questions. In the face of adversity, he was the captain. But, it didn’t stop there, the following morning, Deacon posted on Twitter: “To my brothers,I know it hurts.I know your blaming yourself as am I. Football is my life and it’s been a privilege to have play with you guys this season. Seniors, there’s not much I can say besides how proud I am of y’all. Y’all are my brothers. I love y’all.” Deacon will head to Wisconsin in 2021, and the Badgers are getting themselves a stand-up kid with a truckload of talent.
The parents-of-the-year moment
The San Marcos girls volleyball team enjoyed many incredible moments throughout the season — rallying to the championship of the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions, beating Dos Pueblos on the road to essentially tie for the Channel League title and then rallying in a five-set thriller in the second round of the CIF playoffs — all captured by our reporter Jorge Mercado and photographer Kenneth Song. The Royals seemingly enjoyed the dramatic, egged on by their on-court energizer, Grace Matthews. But it was the incredible support in the stands that stood out, with parents arriving to the Thunderhut and road games with “fat heads” of their favorite players. This type of support is the blueprint of what athletics should be — parents making it all about their kids, supporting them in good times and bad. Imagine a kid being able to look up in a tough moment and seeing that undying support. It means something, and the Royals had it in spades.
The next-woman-up moment
UCSB’s campus was buzzing for most of the fall due to a collection of highly competitive teams. On the night of Oct. 19, I remember getting a text message from Jorge Mercado that UCSB women’s volleyball star Lindsey Ruddins wouldn’t be playing against rival Cal Poly, a perennial Big West powerhouse in the sport. Instead of attending the match to photograph, I made my way over Harder Stadium to shoot the men’s soccer team. About 15 minutes into the match, I got another text from Jorge saying, “Gauchos took the first set.” Wow. I literally sprinted from Harder Stadium to the Thunderdome, just in time to see UCSB take the second set. The Gauchos would eventually win the match in four, a massive upset considering the obstacle of playing without a potential All-American. But, you should never question the heart of a team such as the 2019 Gauchos, a team that would eventually break a 15-year drought in the NCAA Tournament with a win over Texas State and were a handful of games away from knocking out second-seeded Texas.
The it-is-bigger-than-sports moment
The Chicago Hope Academy football team isn’t used to playing amid the palm trees and 70-degree temperatures of early fall in Santa Barbara. Nor had many of the players ever even experienced a plane flight — “guys were in the back of the plane, saying prayers with every turbulent we had,” coach Chris Mallette said — or dipped their toes in the Pacific Ocean. But, due to a pair of old friends in Mick Luckhurst and Bob Muzikowski, the Chicago Hope Academy took on Bishop Diego in a low-scoring slugfest before they broke bread across the street at Leadbetter Beach, the culmination of three days that saw Chicago Hope players stay with host families — sleeping where thy enemy lies, of sorts. But sports are supposed to be the ultimate equalizer, with people from all walks of life lining up to compete with each other, the result knowing no ethnic, spiritual or financial background. On this day, the 7-6 score mattered very little, as the spirit of sport won the day.
With that as the fall sports season, I don’t know what winter has in store, but the bar has been set awfully high.