A trip worth taking
UCSB changed Noah Billingsley’s soccer position because he can cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time.
But few expected the senior right back to get right back to Santa Barbara from Fiji this month after helping New Zealand qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games.
He and Kiwi teammate Hunter Ashworth had to cover 5,500 miles in just 24 hours to help the Gauchos beat rival Cal Poly and continue an unbeaten streak that has now reached 10 games.
“I think people were surprised that it actually worked out,” said Billingsley, who played a big role in the New Zealand’s quest to win the Oceania Football Confederation’s U-23 men’s Olympic Qualifier. “Hunter and I both really wanted to play against Cal Poly so there was no way that wasn’t going to happen.”
They first had to convince the manager of New Zealand’s “All-Whites” to change their return flight to Los Angeles from Oct. 6 to immediately after the Oct. 5 Oceania final. The Kiwis beat the Solomon Islands, 5-0, to punch their ticket for the Tokyo Olympics.
“We finished the game, went back to the hotel, packed, and went straight to the airport,” Billingsley recalled. “I think we got in here (at LAX) about 2 o’clock, drove straight up here, got to the stadium and then played.”
It was helpful, he said, to have company for his trans-Pacific misery. He met Ashworth in 2017 when they played together on New Zealand’s U-20 team. Ashworth liked him so much that transferred from USF to UCSB.
“Traveling around the world with Hunter is great because, obviously, we’re great mates,” Billingsley said.
Nobody was happier to see the two Kiwis travel back to UCSB than Gaucho coach Tim Vom Steeg. His back line had been nearly erased by injuries to three starters.
“They watched the games from Fiji, and after Faouzi (Taieb) went down in the Stanford match, Hunter and Noah literally went in and demanded that they get them on that early plane,” he said. “It was a really tight window, and we were all relying on that plane making its connections. There was no room for error in terms of delays.
“They told me that they’d do whatever it takes to get back for that match, and at that point I held my breath. I knew if we could get them here that we would be fine.”
The Gauchos beat Cal Poly 3-1 before 9,748, tortilla-tossing fans at Harder Stadium. The buzz of that crowd helped sweep the sleepy fog from the heads of both Kiwis.
“To be honest, if it wasn’t the Cal Poly game, it would’ve been a lot harder to play,” Billingsley said. “But 10,000 people is pretty exciting, so it was all the motivation we really needed.
“This is my fourth year playing in that game but it’s still just so incredible to be there.”
After the game, he went home and slept 12 hours straight.
UCSB (9-2-2), which will play host to UC Riverside tonight at 7 o’clock, followed that up last week with shutouts of 2-0 over Sacramento State and 5-0 at 22nd-ranked Cal State Fullerton. It was enough for Top Drawer Soccer to bump the Gauchos up to No. 12 in its national poll and put Billingsley on its National Team of the Week.
Billingsley recorded a hat trick of three assists in the Fullerton match. It continued his tradition of coming up big against the Titans: His overtime goal beat them last year, and he also scored against Fullerton as a freshman.
“I don’t like most of the players on their team so it’s easy to get up for the games,” the 6-foot-2 defender said with a laugh. “I love playing Fullerton. Their field is also about the same size as ours, which is huge, and that suits me.”
His ability to run the field is what prompted Vom Steeg to move him from striker to right back after his sophomore year. Billingsley was a center forward when he became the first 17-year-old to ever start for New Zealand’s U-20 team.
“He’s very athletic, has good size and, most importantly, his fitness level is rivaled only by Tony Lochhead’s,” said Vom Steeg, referring to another Kiwi who starred on UCSB’s College Cup finalist team of 2004. “It’s truly remarkable and is second to none on our squad.
“It’s kind of been the characteristic of our New Zealand guys that they can literally run all day.”
Billingsley made the Big West Conference All-Freshman team in 2016, scoring twice and recording three assists. He also scored winning goals as a sophomore in back-to-back games against Riverside and Cal State Northridge, but he couldn’t find the back of the net in any other match.
Graduation and the early departure of several other Gauchos from the 2016 team had left Billingsley as a well-marked “focal point of our attack” in 2017, Vom Steeg said.
“It didn’t transition particularly well,” he observed. “We didn’t have a good season overall and had trouble scoring.
“We decided to take that pressure off and put him in a position where he could help us both ways, defensively as well as offensively, with his athleticism and work rate.”
New Zealand’s national team coach also recognized his prowess at the position, moving him from forward to right back for this year’s Olympic qualifier.
Vom Steeg believes he’ll make a good living at that spot in the pros.
“Sometimes when a forward is moved to the back he doesn’t embrace it — but to Noah’s credit, he has accepted the role,” he said. “We do give him quite a bit of freedom be an attacking player.
“He’s incredibly effective there because he’s very hard to beat physically. He’s just a monster — strong, powerful, and he obviously has instincts, too.”
Vom Steeg did move him up to forward “when we were going nowhere” in Sept. 19 match at Seattle — a contest they eventually won, 1-0.
“I’m not opposed to putting him back up front when I need to,” he said, “but it just so happens that we now have a nice group of attacking players.”
He also has an injury-wracked back line, and Billingsley has toed that line well.
“It definitely suits me physically because I’m not a short, shifty player,” he said. “I’m quite long and tall and lanky, so running up and down the lines suits me to a T.”
He attended last year’s College Cup at Harder Stadium, even though it was painful to watch from the stands.
“It was during finals week, but I still came out,” Billingsley said. “It’s good to watch good soccer even if it was a bit sad not getting to play in it ourselves.
“But I think we’re doing quite well now.”
This year’s Gauchos are a veteran group, having graduated only three seniors last spring.
“That’s the first time that’s happened here in years,” he said. “We’re all used to each other and we’re all good friends, too.
“We’re just a bunch of mates playing out there, which is good. It’s the first time in a while, I think, that we’ve had this much fun playing, and hopefully that’ll help us make a run.”
A run to this year’s College Cup would entail a long flight to Cary, N.C.
Billingsley has already got himself in the full upright and locked position.
Mark Patton’s column appears on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday.