MORAGA — It took UCSB men’s soccer coach Tim Vom Steeg until the 70th minute to finally crack a smile during Sunday’s NCAA second-round playoff match at St. Mary’s.
He had a lot to he happy about after goals by Noah Billingsley and Will Baynham, along with two from Rodney Michael, enabled the Gauchos to hammer the No. 12-seeded Gaels, 4-0, at St Mary’s Stadium.
From beginning to end, it was all Gauchos from one blade of grass to the other.
After posting a 16-1 record this season and an 18-0-2 mark last season, the Gaels were hit with a tidal wave — the likes of which they hadn’t seen in recent memory — to bring their brilliant season to an abrupt halt.
UCSB (14-4-4), which throttled Cal, 3-1, in Thursday’s first-round match at Harder Stadium, is in the Round of 16 for the first time since 2015. That match will be at No. 5 Indiana next Sunday at 9 a.m. (PST).
UCSB destroyed St. Mary’s on a field that was in horrible shape, to put it mildly.
“We came in today knowing the field is, obviously, a little rough. It’s afternoon, and we struggle in the afternoon,” Gaucho coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “So the game plan was to turn their defenders, to put some balls in the corner, pick up some more balls in midfield and then continue what we decided to do against (Cal), which was just flat out run all over this field.
“We won midfield. That’s the second consecutive game we’ve won midfield.”
That was do in large part to redshirt freshman Sam Fletcher, who made the most of his second consecutive postseason start.
“There were a lot of good players on the field and a lot of good performances, but none as good as Sam,” Vom Steeg said. “His energy and his workrate were exceptional. He covered so much ground on this field today.”
Fletcher’s performance, along with a number of other outstanding efforts by UCSB defenders, allowed the Gaucho offense to get hot and stay hot.
Billingsley got the scoring going in the 32nd minute off a free kick to the left of the Gaels’ 18-yard box. Senior Ignacio Tellechea, who had just come on two minutes earlier, sent a perfect cross to the back post, where senior center back Hunter Ashworth headed it to his senior teammate, Billingsley, who finished his first goal of the season.
Tellechea, UCSB’s only natural left-footed player, missed most of the last two months with a hamstring injury. He played less than 10 minutes on Thursday against Cal, and logged only 25 minutes on Sunday. But he made the most of his one big opportunity in the 32nd.
“The ball went up in the air and I won a free kick for us,” Tellechea said. “I saw Hunter at the back post and he was looking at me, and he was like, ‘Put it here, I’m going to score this.’
“I hit it there and Hunter played it across and Noah finished it. It was a huge goal that opened up the game for us. … We played very well and we deserved to win.”
Most of the crowd of 1,556 sat or stood in stunned silence as the Gauchos proceeded to carve up the Gaels like a Thanksgiving turkey.
Whatever UCSB did, and wherever it did it on the field, St. Mary’s was simply outclassed. The 4-0 score — which included Baynham’s strike in the 65th and Michael’s goals in the 70th and 80th minutes, when the Gauchos played him magnificently through midfield — gave UCSB seven goals over its last two matches. It’s the most in the postseason in back-to-back matches for a Gaucho team since 2004, when UCSB tallied nine in two consecutive NCAA Tournament games.
Michael said he wasn’t surprised the Gauchos won, but he did admit the final score was not something he was expecting.
“Everyone had the energy,” he said. “Even if people were getting tired, they were still making the extra run. Just working for each other, I’m very proud of the team.
“I think if we keep doing that throughout the playoffs, we’ll have a very good chance of going as far as we want.”
Baynham’s goal, which tied him with freshman Finn Ballard McBride for team-high honors with nine, was set up by an assist by junior midfielder Kaya Fabretti. Michael’s second goal in the 80th was also off an assist by Fabretti, who came off the bench to give UCSB great minutes.
Prior to Sunday’s drubbing, St. Mary’s had allowed only two goals in its previous nine matches. Its only other loss this season was to another Big West opponent, UC Davis. The Aggies, who lost their second-round NCAA match at home to Louisville, 1-0, on Sunday, beat the Gaels 4-2 earlier in the season.
Outside of the two four-goal games of which St. Mary’s was on the losing end, the Gaels allowed only seven goals to their other 16 opponents.
It speaks volumes as to what UCSB was able to accomplish on Sunday.
“I thought the turning point in the game was in the second half, when Rodney and Will started getting it going on the right-hand side,” Vom Steeg said. “When that happened, that created all of our chances.”
UCSB is going back to Indiana — which beat Kentucky, 3-0, on Sunday — for the first time since 2008.
The Gauchos beat the Hoosiers in that match, 2-1. In fact, in Vom Steeg’s 21 years at the helm of the UCSB program, he is 4-1-1 against Indiana.
“We’ve earned the right to go to Indiana, and we’re playing a team that’s a perennial final-four team,” he said.
Indiana played in the College Cup last season at UCSB, losing to eventual champion Maryland in the semifinals. Gaucho sophomore goalkeeper Ben Roach made two key saves at St. Mary’s for his 11th shutout of the season.
“He made a big save in the first half, which kept the game, 0-0, and he controlled his box the rest of the game,” Vom Steeg said.