Gauchos work their way back to Big West title game

David Opoku, right, celebrates with UCSB teammate Sam Garza after Opoku's goal gave the Gauchos a 2-0 lead in the 61st minute.. Garza assisted on the eventual game-winning goal. (Vince Agapito photo)

It’s been quite a run for the UCSB men’s soccer team over the last three weeks.

In that time, the Gauchos have gone from a 2-4 record and sixth place in the Big West to five straight wins and a spot in the championship game of the conference tournament.

UCSB advanced to its fourth straight tournament final with a workmanlike 2-1 win over UC Davis in the semifinals before 1,725 on Wednesday night at Harder Stadium.

The second-seeded Gauchos (14-5-1) will now travel to top-seeded UC Irvine on Saturday night for the tournament championship and automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament. Irvine beat fourth-seeded UC Riverside 2-0 in the other semifinal.

UCSB, the defending tournament champion, will be seeking its first win against Irvine in a Big West Tournament final. It lost to the Anteaters in 2009 and 2008.

The Gauchos won their fifth in row while playing without senior center back Tim Pontius, who was serving a one-game suspension for an accumulation of yellow cards.

Marshall Cazares filled his spot admirably, and regular starter Peter Schmetz turned in a good night’s work banging bodies with UC Davis’ physical forward Dan Reese.

“We’re in a position now where we’re finding ways to win, and kind of feel like we’re going to win,” UCSB coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “It’s a good position to be in right in row.”

The Gauchos used their speed advantage and slick ballhandling to create some excellent scoring chances early. David Opoku missed on a pair of quality opportunities before Sam Garza was knocked down in the box, and referee Mohamed Mahmoud awarded a penalty kick.

Garza stepped up and beat Davis goalkeeper Omar Zeeni with shot to his left to give the Gauchos a 1-0 lead in the `17th minute.

The thrd-seeded Aggies (7-8-4) came close to equalizing on a loose ball in the box, but Schmetz made a big defensive play, knocking the ball away from Nick Grigoriev right in front of the goal.

Schmetz set up the eventual game-winning goal with a long pass on the ground to Garza. Garza dribbled to the top of the box and laid the ball off to his left, where Opoku stepped up and scored with a low shot inside the back post for a 2-0 lead in the 61st minute.

“I felt like I worked really hard tonight so I really deserved that goal,” said Opoku, who is tied with Garza for second on the team with eight goals. “I’m very happy for myself and very happy for the team to be in the final and to show Irvine what we got.”

UC Davis cut the margin to 2-1 on a header by Reese off a free kick to the back post by Lance Patterson in the 80th minute.

The Aggies pressured to score the equalizer in the final minutes, but Gaucho goalkeeper Andre Grandt came up with a pair of saves to preserve the win and put the team in the final, with chance to earn a high seed for the NCAA Tournament.

“It was imperative to get into that game,” Vom Steeg said of the Big West final. “Based on where we are (on the RPI list), tonight was the night. We’re talking about the eight RPI (Irvine) playing against 10 (UCSB). With that game being played, we will get a seed and a bye (for the first round of the NCAA Tournament). So we needed tonight to get to that game.”