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Gauchos take on a fired-up Denver squad in NCAA opener

The Mountain Pacific Sports Federation isn’t considered one of the power conferences in men’s college soccer, but it has more teams in this year’s NCAA Tournament than any conference in the west.

Three teams from the MPSF made the 48-team tournament field, bettering the Pac-10 (2), West Coast Conference (1) and Big West (1).

Denver, the MPSF regular-season champion, received an at-large berth in the tournament and takes on UCSB (13-4-3) in a first-round match Thursday at 7 p.m. at Harder Stadium. The winner travels to sixth-seeded Cal for the second round on Sunday.

“I don’t think we’re shocked, we’re excited,” Denver coach Bobby Muuss said about making the NCAAs for the second time in three years.

UCSB is making its ninth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

The Pioneers (9-6-4) come to Santa Barbara full of confidence, despite losing 3-1 in the semifinals of the MPSF Tournament to host Sacramento State.

“It was a bad day to have a bad day,” Muuss said of the loss. “We were left in limbo for three days not knowing if we’d have the opportunity to train again and play in the NCAA Tournament. When our name went on the board, the guys were back in game mode again. They were excited. The last couple of days of training have been excellent. There’s a lot of energy and guys are buzzing around.”

Denver is joined by Sacramento State (10-4-7, the MPSF tournament champion) and New Mexico (9-5-5) in the NCAAs, the first time the conference has had three teams in the tourney.
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Muuss said the credit for the MPSF’s big year goes to the conference coaches.

“Our conference top to bottom did a great job scheduling. It’s a testament to the coaching staffs and the teams,” he said.

The Pioneers’ nonconference schedule included matches against nationally ranked teams like Georgetown, Penn State, Cal — all in the NCAA Tournament — and Portland. That helped them get an RPI of 42.

Denver beat Georgetown and played Cal to a tie.

“They got three big-time players,” UCSB coach Tim Vom Steeg said of the Pioneers, citing forwards Jarod Stigall (9 goals, 8 assists) and Kellan Christensen (5 goals, 3 assists) and outside midfielder Alex Tarnoczi (3 goals, 6 assists).

Gaucho forward Sam Garza played with several of the Denver players two years ago when he was the MPSF Newcomer of the Year for the Pioneers.

“Garza rates (Stigall) him as their best player,” said Vom Steeg.

Goalkeeper Joe Willis is a big reason for Denver’s success. He has a 0.70 goals-against average.

“They have a 6-5 goalie who is going to sign a contract with a team in England. He makes the goal look like a hockey net. Obviously, he can change the game.”

The Gauchos have faced several hot goalkeepers this year.

“I feel like we’re going to need our 25 shots and get 2-3 goals no matter who’s in goal,” Vom Steeg said

“This is a good match-up for us,” he added, “because it’s a team that will want to play.”