In a season that has produced so much excitement and success, the UCSB men’s soccer team is looking to rebound from its biggest bummer of the campaign.
The Gauchos will learn their NCAA Tournament fate today — three days after losing to UC Davis, 2-0, in the Big West Conference Tournament championship match in Davis.
The Aggies, by virtue of their victory, will have the conference’s automatic bid into this year’s NCAA national championship tournament.
The Gauchos, who were ranked No. 15 in the country before the Davis loss, are fully convinced they have done enough this season to get in as an at-large team.
At 12-4-4, UCSB coach Tim Vom Steeg is also pretty confident his team will host an NCAA first-round match on Thursday night.
With the prospects of returning to the national postseason stage for the first time since 2015 — when the Gauchos advanced to the Round of 16 — the sting of Friday’s loss at Davis was still with Vom Steeg when the team reconveined for a one-hour training session on Sunday night at Harder Stadium.
“We’ve been very, very good all season at not having that one game where we don’t bring the energy, or we don’t do the things that we need to do,” Vom Steeg said. “It’s really difficult when you play a 19- or 20-game schedule and there are some Wednesday games that are a natural letdown after some of the big games we played (the previous weekend).
“Those are always the games I worry about. … I’ve never ever had to worry about us showing up with the type of commitment and fight you need to win a game when it’s Stanford, or it’s Cal Poly, or UCLA, or certainly the Big West playoffs.”
That’s why Vom Steeg was still stunned on Sunday night, more than 48 hours after the Gauchos were outplayed by the Aggies in every aspect of the game. Davis dominated in shots with an 18-4 advantage, and the Gauchos mustered just one shot on goal.
It was, in Vom Steeg’s estimation, the first time this season his team simply wasn’t where it needed to be, mentally or emotionally.
“It was shocking,” Vom Steeg said of the team’s performance. “All I could do was think about what got missed along the way, because the idea that we wouldn’t compete never even crossed my mind.”
Prior to Sunday evening’s training session, Vom Steeg had a stern lecture for his players while they watched video of the Friday disaster.
“We, collectively, had nine, 10 players who probably had their worst game of the year, and it happened all at one time,” Vom Steeg added.
“There was no excuse for us not to be able to compete for a Big West championship.”
One statistic that stood out to Vom Steeg involved Aggies goalkeeper Wallis Lapsly.
It truly summed up the game from UCSB’s perspective.
“Of the 28 (goal) kicks that he took and just sent the ball down the field, they ended up picking up the next ball on all of them except for two,” Vom Steeg said. “That meant that when he launched the ball down the field, their players picked up the second ball (off of 50-50 balls) and were facing forward with all of the kicks except for two.
“That’s just a heart and effort conversation. It was inexplicable, and I don’t have the words.”
Vom Steeg admitted that he probably would not have had a Sunday night training session had the Gauchos won.
But because they lost, and the manner in which they lost, UCSB’s bench boss felt it necessary to flush away the bad taste from Friday, and start moving forward.
“Tonight was to forget about the game. Let’s get out here, let’s do what we like to do. We like to play soccer,” Vom Steeg said.
“I always feel that if you sit around too long on a loss like that, then guys can start questioning themselves or start blaming somebody else.
“It was important for us to give them a little bit of time off, but we flip the lights on at Harder Stadium tonight, we roll the balls out and we start to feel good about ourselves again.”
Senior co-captain Noah Billingsley felt the team got the message from Vom Steeg during the Sunday meeting.
“I think it was definitely a much-needed meeting,” Billingsley said. “He wasn’t happy and he did have some words for us, which I think were 100 percent necessary. We understand why we lost, and it wasn’t because we were a worse soccer playing team.
“It was the fact that they wanted it more than us, and in a final for a championship, that should not be the case. The message is loud and clear, and we had a really good training session tonight. I don’t think our effort in the NCAA Tournament will be called into question again.”
The NCAA Tournament selection show will be at 10 a.m. today. The team plans on gathering at Harder Stadium to watch it online.