Sophomore quarterback Chris Brown paced the Cal Poly football team with 195 yards rushing and three touchdowns in a 34-16 win over UC Davis on Saturday.
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Cal Poly soccer fans have been spoiled in the past few years. Three straight home wins against rival UC Santa Barbara have resulted in students spilling from the bleachers onto the field to mob the team and join the party in Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
In the 2013 installment of the Blue-Green Rivalry, the sellout crowd waited 110 minutes of regulation and double-overtime for a similar moment to happen.
But it never came.
Instead, fans were forced to head for the exits with a sobering feeling familiar among soccer supporters — the apathy of a draw.
“It was a weird feeling,” head coach Paul Holocher said. “We haven’t tied with these guys in a while. We’re used to the drama of the win or the loss, but you look back at it now … and say, ‘Wow, that was a good game.’”
Good games have become the standard in this rivalry. While the quality of play on the pitch has contributed to the thrilling nature of these clashes, the culture is what sets it apart.
Although separated by just 100 miles, the two teams and their respective schools represent polar opposites when it comes to lifestyle and soccer.
Cal Poly is historically an agriculture-based university located in the rolling hills of the Central Coast. UC Santa Barbara is a university hanging on the cliffs of the Pacific Ocean, doubling as a beach town.
Cal Poly’s men’s soccer roster is made of three foreign-born players; UC Santa Barbara’s: seven.
The Mustangs have been to the NCAA tournament twice. The Gauchos: 10 times.
But none of that matters come game day. Twelve of the last 13 matches between the two have been decided by a single goal or drawn. In those matches, the Mustangs have held their own at home in the last five years, but have struggled for points on the road — an ode to the rabid fanbases of both teams.
“The soccer rivalry between us and Santa Barbara is what Duke and North Carolina are to men’s basketball,” Cal Poly Athletics Director Don Oberhelman said in a press conference leading up to the game. “It’s the best soccer rivalry in the United States.”
Through the years, the Mustangs have found ways to equalize and score game-winners late in matches, prompting students to storm the pitch, an activity that has become the norm after a win over the Gauchos.
In 2013, instead of the late-game heroics, Cal Poly drew first blood just as fans were settling into their seats.
Freshman winger Justin Dhillon gave Cal Poly — the nation’s top team in goals scored entering the match — an early lead when he squeaked a header past UC Santa Barbara’s goalkeeper to make it a 1-0 game in the ninth-minute.
“It was the longest day leading up to this game,” Dhillon said following the match. “But as I started to warm up, the butterflies started to turn into excitement. If you’re not pumped up, I don’t know what you’re doing here.”
Dhillon’s tally was Cal Poly’s lone goal of the day and one of only a handful of chances the Mustangs had against the Gauchos.
“Just the whole game, we got that early goal and had the momentum,” senior midfielder George Malki said following the game. “All these Santa Barbara games come down to momentum. You have it at one point and then they take it away. It’s a back and forth game.”
The nation’s then-No. 21-ranked team responded.
Following a misplayed clearance by a Cal Poly defender, UC Santa Barbara’s leading goal-scorer Achille Campion banged a shot against the crossbar and past Cal Poly goalkeeper Wade Hamilton in the final minute of the first half. The score was knotted at 1.
From there, the Mustangs and Gauchos exchanged chances, the best of which came 44 seconds into overtime when the Big West Conference’s leading scorer Mackenzie Pridham found himself one-on-one with the Gauchos’ goalkeeper. The freshman stonewalled Pridham with a sprawling, fingertip save near the right post on a 10-yard drive headed for the corner.
Had Pridham scored there, the beefed-up security detail specifically hired for that game wouldn’t have stood a chance against the stampede of students racing toward the hero of the 2013 version of the rivalry match. But it wasn’t meant to be.
“We wanted the fans to rush the field like they always do, but I’m really glad they didn’t,” Malki said.
While the match as a whole was filled with soccer-specific chants and the now-customary “Cal … Poly” drone, where each side of the stadium took turns yelling both words, the tension was highest in its late stages. The bottled-up adrenaline reached a fever pitch just as Pridham’s shot glazed off McNeely’s fingertips in overtime.
“Pridham had that shot and their goalkeeper literally went full extension, dove backwards and made the save,” Holocher said. “Everybody in the building thought that would go in.”
For the fans, 110 minutes was long enough to wait for an indecisive 1-1 contest. Add two more weeks to that total, and the return match in Goleta on Nov. 9 should offer an atmosphere of soccer rarely seen at the collegiate level.
Harder Stadium, home of the Gauchos, is branded as “soccer heaven.” But UC Santa Barbara fans will make sure the Mustangs experience hell once they step on the pitch.
Couple that with the fact the match will be the final game of the regular season for both teams, and the ingredients for a college clásico are in place. Not to mention, the game will be televised live on Fox Sports West — just another reason for the players and the supporters to offer their best.
The Gauchos have already clinched the Big West North Division title, so the result won’t matter much to them. But for the Mustangs, potential Big West tournament seeding will be at stake. Still, neither team will worry about formalities.
It will also mark the final regular season game for the eight seniors on Cal Poly’s roster. Led by center back Connor Drechsler, who will make his 74th consecutive start on the back line, this will be the last time they experience the awe of the rivalry. That is, unless the two teams advance to the finals of the Big West conference tournament with a spot in the NCAA tournament on the line.
Drechsler has started every game since he stepped foot on campus four years ago, a feat bested by only former defender Patrick Sigler and forward David Zamora.
But he remembers his decision to come to Cal Poly as a senior in high school like it was yesterday. The then-recruit was drawn in by the magnitude of the rivalry.
“You come up to that game, and it’s more people than have ever watched all my games put together in my club career,” Drechsler said. “I remember being in complete awe and thinking, ‘Sign me up right away.’”
In last season’s game in Goleta, Pridham slotted home a game-winner in overtime after Malki tied it up in the 89th minute. In the elation, the Cal Poly fans that made the trip down Highway 101 for the night rushed the Gauchos’ field in an act of jubilation and defiance of the opposing schools’ home turf.
Don’t think UC Santa Barbara forgot about that.
“We weren’t playing for the W,” Pridham said after that October 2012 match that snapped a 15-year win drought at Santa Barbara. “We were playing for the love of our team.”
Wins have been hard to come by for the Mustangs at Harder Stadium, but after a depleting draw in the first game of a home-and-home with the Gauchos one thing is for sure: This rivalry is to be continued.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated Cal Poly had been to the NCAA tournament once, they have actually been to the postseason twice.