Gauchos upset by Fullerton in Big West final

Fullerton celebrates with goal-scorer in the middle. (John Dvorak/Presidio Sports Photos)

Fullerton celebrates with goal-scorer Mitchell Bell in the middle. (John Dvorak/Presidio Sports Photos)

The chances were plentiful but UCSB couldn’t find the back of the net and wound up as the runner-up in the Big West Tournament.

Cal State Fullerton scored on a rebound in the 52nd minute and made it stand up for a 1-0 victory over the Gauchos before 3,242 at Harder Stadium. The Titans won the tournament championship and the conference’s automatic NCAA Tournament berth.

UCSB, with a 13-6-2 record and a No. 17 RPI, is expected to receive an at-large berth when the NCAA tournament pairings are announced Monday.

The loss figures to cost the Gauchos their chance to receive a top-16 seed and a first-round bye. They’ll likely open the tournament on Thursday.

The game’s only goal was scored by Titans defender Mitchell Bell. He latched onto a rebound of Robert Coronado’s blistering shot off the post and buried it. He also scored against the Gauchos last year.

UCSB created chance after scoring chance throughout the game. The Gauchos outshot the Titans 22-5, but Fullerton goalkeeper David Elias was outstanding and kept the ball out of the net. He finished with five saves and was named the tournament MVP.

“You got a goalkeeper that’s taking bullets. He’s doing everything he can, playing like Superman in this game. I thought he played outstanding,” said Fullerton coach George Kuntz, who’s guided the Titans to two straight titles, giving him six in his career (four with UC Irvine).

Elias got a huge assist from center back Ricardo Covarrubias, who took a red card after grabbing the jersey of Gaucho forward Nick DePuy as he was breaking in on goal in the 82nd minute.

“That was a tactical foul and Ricky took one for the team,” said Kuntz. “If he does let that go, three more yards it turns into a PK or a shot. With player on the ball, one of the leading scorers in the nation, you know what can happen.”

The Gauchos set up for a free kick at the top of the 18-yard box and Kevin Feucht blasted the ball into the Fullerton wall. Ahinga Selemani collected the ball and fired a shot on goal that was saved by Elias.

UCSB created another good opportunity in the 85th minute, as Sam Strong laid the ball off for DePuy in the box. The nation’s No. 2 goal scorer hit his shot across the goal mouth and just wide of the far post.

Earlier in the second half, Geoffrey Acheampong hit a dangerous diagonal ball toward the far post but Elias knocked it away. Elias saved a side volley from Acheampong and stopped a header from DePuy. Feucht missed a chance with header off an Acheampong free kick in the 67th minute.

Feucht set up Josue Espana with a great chance in the first half, flicking a ball to Espana at the far post. The Gaucho midfielder headed the ball off the cross bar. Espana also had a big strike saved by Elias in the 22nd minute and Feucht slammed a 28-yard free kick off the cross bar in the 42nd.

Despite the defeat, UCSB coach Tim Vom Steeg “thought it was our best game of the season. I thought we controlled the game. I thought we had a little 15 minute lull at the start of the second half and out of that came their only shot on frame. (Coronado) hit it well. It came off the post, hit the right spot and they got their goal.

“I didn’t think them getting one goal would be the key to the game because I thought we were firing on all cylinders,” he added. “I thought we had a lot going on, I thought we had a lot of opportunities. The one Achilles heel for us tonight was of the 22 shots we took only six were on frame.”

Vom Steeg noted in the press conference that his son, Justin, was more than likely done playing for the season because of a shoulder injury. Justin Vom Steeg was replaced by Brandon Berke in the second half on Saturday night.

“We’ve been dealing with this shoulder issue for about 2-3 weeks now,” coach Vom Steeg said. “He said, ‘I can’t dive to my right.’ He went out and played the first half. At halftime, he said, ‘I don’t want to be the reason why we lose tonight, because I cannot go to my right.’

“We’ll have to see where it goes,” the coach added. “We’ve been trying to see if we can get through the season with this. I think realistically we’re not going to get though the season. Tonight was probably as far as we can take it.”

UCSB's Nick DePuy skies for a corner kick in the first half.

Facing a double team, UCSB’s Nick DePuy skies for a corner kick in the first half.