Gauchos picked first in Big West North Division

The Big West soccer coaches are predicting that UCSB will bounce back from its subpar season and finish first in the conference’s North Division.

In their preseason poll, the eight coaches tabbed the Gauchos and Cal State Northridge as the leading contenders to win division titles.

UCSB collected five first-place votes for a total of 25 points, narrowly edging out UC Davis for the North Division top spot.  The Aggies corraled 23 points and the other three remaining first-place votes.  Cal Poly had 21 points for third place and Sacramento State finished fourth with 11.

Cal State Northridge, last year’s South winner and Big West Tournament champion, earned the necessary votes to fill the favorite’s role again for 2013.  The Matadors received six first-place votes and 30 points overall to outdistance UC Irvine, which came in second place with a first-place vote and 21 points overall.  Cal State Fullerton claimed a first-place vote and 16 points for the third slot, while UC Riverside was fourth with 13 points.

UCSB won 10 matches last year but struggled in conference play, going 4-5-1. Coach Tim Vom Steeg’s squad returns seven starters and 12 letterwinners.  Although injuries plagued the roster and derailed the team’s championship aspirations last season, UCSB enters 2013 with a healthy stable of talent led by seniors Achille Campion and Peter Schmetz.  Campion scored six goals in seven starts but missed 12 games last year due to injury.  Schmetz, a 6-foot-6 anchor of the Gaucho backline, saw injuries limit him to eight starts.  Other vital returnees among the senior class include 2012 All-Big West First Team selection Fifi Baiden and second team all-conference pick Daniel Welsh. Baiden and Campion were rated No. 38 and No. 100 on Top Drawer Soccer’s list of the nation’s top 100 collegiate soccer players, respectively.

UC Davis claimed the program’s first Big West regular season title in 2012 as they bested their North Division competition with a 7-3 record.  The Aggies bring back nine starters from the side that reached the championship match of the Big West Tournament.  A trio of senior all-conference performers helped trigger that success as midfielder Kevin Schulte (Second Team), goaltender Omar Zeenni (Second Team) and defender Alex Henry (Honorable Mention) return to the pitch this season.

Cal Poly also is expected to contend behind the return of senior Mackenzie Pridham, the 2012 Big West Offensive Player of the Year and one of 34 candidates for the Missouri Athletic Club Hermann Trophy.

Cal State Northridge, which last season tied the school’s Division I record for most wins with 15 and advanced to the NCAA Tournament, returns six starters and 14 letterwinners, including the top three goal scorers led by junior Sagi Lev-Ari.  The forward topped the Big West with 15 goals to earn all-conference second team honors.  Junior Edwin Rivas, an All-Big West First Team Selection, and senior Beto Velasquez (Second Team) each netted eight goals.  In addition, the Matadors return 2012 Big West assist leader Carlos Benavides to the lineup.  The senior midfielder earned praise from Top Drawer Soccer as the No. 39 rated player on its list of the top 100 collegiate players.

The coaches also voted for an 11-player preseason all-conference team.  Cal State Northridge led all squads with three selections (Benavides, Lev-Ari, Rivas), while UC Irvine (Marco Franco, Cameron Iwasa) and UCSB (Baiden, Campion) had two apiece.  Cal Poly’s Pridham, Cal State Fullerton junior Ian Ramos, Sacramento State senior Isaac Ikyurav and UC Riverside senior Aaron Long also were recognized on the list.