Wednesday Win, Saturday Stalemate
His quickened breath misting the cold, crisp air, junior Miguel Ibarra watched the ball move across the field, anxiously anticipating the next opportunity to try and break the draw.
Unfortunately, a goal never came to fruition as the No. 7 UC Irvine Anteaters tied the No. 13 UC Santa Barbara Gauchos 0-0 on Saturday, after two halves of overtime. Though the final whistle ended a scoreless game, the faceoff was far from eventless.
Donning pink jerseys in support of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the ’Eaters proved their team’s chemistry by making solid connections and smart plays. Ibarra was an elemental player in the game, his quick-footed, fast breaks keeping him in the heat of the action. The ’Eaters defense shone in the first half, testifying their solidarity in their clean communication and “first-to-the-ball” mindset.
Though there were excellent plays on both sides of the ball, the stalemate continued into the second half.
“It’s kind of a tale of two halves,” said Head Coach George Kuntz about the back-and-forth movement of the match. “Whenever we play this team it’s going to be a game like this where both teams are going at it … it’s a chess game.”
The excitement heightened throughout the last 45 minutes of regular play, the game strewn with several yellow cards and one ejection for the Gauchos.
“Whenever we play Santa Barbara, both teams are very physical,” Kuntz said. “When they shut down Spencer Thompson completely, to me, it’s really frustrating.”
As the defensive struggle continued, the Anteaters kept their own. The offense was more on point in the second half, highlighted by sharp connections made by senior forward Amani Walker, setting up smart plays and quick feeds, and several attempts on goal, like senior defender Joel Bagby’s close header in the 49th minute.
Freshman Marco Franco provided a burst of energy in the second half with smart runs down the right wing, and junior goalkeeper Andrew Fontein made a couple of saves, highlighted in a heart-stopping deflection off his shin guards after Santa Barbara took a shot from an arguably offside position in the 63rd minute. Fontein recorded three saves, giving him his 11th shutout of the season.
Overtime played out much like the rest of the game. The Gauchos handcuffed the Anteaters’ offense, limiting them to one shot on goal during the two overtime periods.
“We weren’t hungry enough,” Kuntz said. “We were playing a man out and this is our home turf and we have a big crowd. It’s just frustrating … you know, the effort was good, but we need to be cleaner … we had chances to finish this game.”
Walker echoed his coach’s sentiments. “We’re disappointed with a tie, but you can’t dwell on it, you have to move forward,” Walker said.
Though slightly deflating, the ’Eaters clinched a top-two finish in the Big West with this tie and last Wednesday’s 2-1 win against UC Riverside. Walker secured that match with his fourth game-winning goal, adding onto Zach Olow’s first netted shot.
“Miguel [Ibarra] made a very good run and played me a good ball … I was happy to get the result over there to keep us pushing forward,” Walker said.
The Anteaters are now 13-1-3 overall and 6-0-2 in conference play, and a win in either of their last two matches will clinch the Big West regular season title.
“What we need to get back to doing is being a little more focused in the final third, to finish chances that we’ve created,” Kuntz said.
The Anteaters close out the home portion of their schedule on Wednesday, Nov. 3 against Cal State Northridge and their final game of the season comes against Cal State Fullerton on Nov. 6.