Nick Larson & Trent Merfeld
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The Blue-Green Rivalry is, well, unrivaled in the world of men’s college soccer.

For the fourth time in a row, Alex G. Spanos Stadium was filled to capacity. This installment of the rivalry featured 11,075 fans, nearly all clad in black, singing the national anthem loud enough to drown out the a cappella group on the field.

UC Santa Barbara (9-6-3, 5-2-2 Big West Conference) had not defeated the Cal Poly men’s soccer team (8-6-4, 3-4-2) in Spanos Stadium since 2008.

On Sunday, that changed.

The Gauchos took down the Mustangs 2-0, clinching first place in the Big West North Division and a postseason berth. The Mustangs round out the bottom of the division but still have a shot at the playoffs with one game remaining.

UC Santa Barbara struck early, as sophomore forward Nick Depuy drilled a shot from just inside the 18-yard box to the back post, just avoiding the outstretched arms of junior goalkeeper Wade Hamilton in the seventh minute.

The Gauchos dominated the opening minutes of the game. The ball remained in the Cal Poly half nearly the whole time, forcing them into an unfavorable defensive shell that they were unable to break out of.

“It’s not the start we wanted,” junior midfielder Matt LaGrassa said. “We were probably a little shocked. I think on the first goal we didn’t end the play when we had the opportunity. Maybe we don’t keep possession but we smash it out of bounds, do something to that nature.”

Just 15 minutes later, DePuy struck again. He was left open in the center of the box and rifled home a header to the top left corner.

“It was just a missed marking assignment,” interim head coach Phil Ruskin said. “I think the distance between our center backs and their strikers was too great.”

DePuy dismantled the Mustangs this year, scoring three of the four goals in the two matches between the sides.

“He’s very dangerous in the air,” LaGrassa said of DePuy. “(It was a) great header.”

Around the 30th minute, the tone of the game changed. The Gauchos relaxed with the two-goal advantage, seeming to be content with absorbing the Cal Poly attack. The Mustangs finally found their legs and were able to begin to look dangerous going forward. They were finally able to muster a shot in the 33rd minute, one of only two the Mustangs fired in the first half.

At halftime, the Gauchos only had two shots on goal, both of which beat Hamilton, who did not record a save in the half. On the other side, UC Santa Barbara goalkeeper Brandon Berke was only forced to make one save. The Gauchos’ physicality showed in the first half, as they committed 11 fouls compared to only two by the Mustangs.

The Mustangs came out firing in the second half. They dominated possession and the shot totals, out-shooting the Gauchos 11 to five, though only three of those shots ended up on goal.

“I think it’s kind of a tale of two halves,” Ruskin said.

“I didn’t think we were necessarily as prepared as we should have been in the first half. I think the early goal may have shell-shocked us a bit more than we were expecting. Obviously giving up a goal five minutes in is challenging, but I’m really, really proud of the players’ response in the second half.”

In the 70th minute, the Mustangs finally had something go their way. UC Santa Barbara’s Armand Bagramyan picked up his second yellow card of the match, resulting in a red card and an ejection from the match. The Gauchos were consequently forced to play with only 10 men for the remainder of the contest.

The red card swayed play in favor of the Mustangs even more, and in the 77th minute, LaGrassa was able to put the ball in the back of the net. However, the referee awarded a free kick in favor of the Gauchos, ruling the goalkeeper, Berke, was fouled on the play.

“The goal that got called back, I don’t know if it was a foul or not,” Ruskin said. “But (we were) still creating and creating, so I’m proud of the boys in the second half. I thought we really did the right things. The adjustments were correct at halftime, and the execution was spot on, so I’m proud of the boys for that.”

In the 86th minute, sophomore defender Sean Dhillon was taken down inside the penalty box, earning a penalty for the Mustangs. LaGrassa stepped up to the penalty spot, but his attempt was saved by Berke.

“Sometimes the ball just doesn’t bounce your way,” LaGrassa said. “Penalties have haunted us all year, and I wasn’t good enough.”

At the final whistle, the Mustangs had out-shot the Gauchos 13-12, but the chances did not fall their way.

“I know all the guys think those last couple chances we had, they could have maybe done something slightly different,” sophomore midfielder Justin Dhillon said. “In the heat of the moment, what comes out of you is just your instincts, and unfortunately it didn’t happen for us tonight.”

The Mustangs now sit on 11 points with one match remaining, only two points behind Sacramento State and three points behind UC Davis.

“It just shows you how tough the Big West is,” Dhillon added. “Not many conferences can say that everyone is within a point of each other from first to last place. I think we have what it takes, enough heart on the team. All the guys, I think they really want to pull through and I think we can do it.”

There are multiple scenarios that will determine whether the Mustangs make the Big West playoffs, but none of those involve anything less than a win when they travel north to face UC Davis on Nov. 5.

“Like we’ve always said, going on the road in the Big West and picking up points is what it’s all about if you want to get into the tournament,” Ruskin said. “That’s going to be absolutely true on Wednesday at Davis.”

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