SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – For the third-straight season, the Cal State Fullerton men's soccer squad is headed to championship match at the Big West Men's Soccer Tournament after defeating UC Santa Barbara, 2-1, on Wednesday night at Harder Stadium.
"We all know UCSB is a great formidable opponent and we know that most roads go through this team so I want to commend UCSB for a great season," coach George Kuntz said. "At the same time, I'm really proud of our guys because we've battled through a lot of adversity. We started with seven pre-existing injuries and we went through a rough stretch where they bent but did not break. They bounced and I'm really proud of our guys for this game and their execution tonight."
With the victory, the Titans move to 10-8-4 on the season and look to become the first men's soccer program in Big West history to win three consecutive conference tournament titles. Fullerton does become only the second Big West program to play in three-straight Big West Tournament final matches, joining the Gauchos (10-7-3) who appeared in four-straight from 2008-11.
On Saturday, Fullerton will head to CSUN to battle the Matadors at Matador Soccer Field in the championship match. The two teams played each other twice this season with both matches ending in a draw.
The Titans got off to a lightning start against the Gauchos as Alex Heilmann intercepted the ball off a lazy pass in the first minute and launched a long distance strike from about 40-yards out, but the Big West leading goal scorer's effort fell right into the goalkeeper's hands to keep the match scoreless.
After controlling possession throughout the start, Fullerton found some room atop the UC Santa Barbara box and Ruben Alvarez laid a pass to forward Rei Dorwart. The freshman put up a pacey strike from 25-yards out that bent right into the top right corner of the net to give the Titans an early 1-0 edge in the ninth minute. Dorwart's goal was his second of the year, while Alvarez collected his second assist this season.
"There was a cross in the box and the ball happened to come to me," Dorwart said. "Ross (McPhie) was actually asking for it so he was telling me in the locker room I was lucky I scored it because he would of got mad at me because I didn't give it to him. I just turned and I had space."
Eight minutes later, Titan defender Michael Lopez almost scored his second goal of the tournament as the sophomore took a clearance and put a low pacey effort through the box, but the ball sliced wide for a goal kick.
In the closing moments of the first half, Brandon West checked in for Alex Heilmann and made an immediate impact on the pitch as the sophomore made a sliding effort in the center of the box but the ball sailed over the top post.
Nicolo D'Amato also had a strong chance to close out the half for the Titans as the midfielder kept UCSB's Brandon Burke on his toes with a long distance effort that sailed just high of the post.
The Fullerton defense looked superb through the first 45 minutes as the backline didn't let the Gauchos develop anything in the attacking half and closed in on any space Santa Barbara could find.
Overall, the Titans won the shots (8-3) and corners (4-2) categories, while UCSB's led in saves (1-0) in the first half.
After a strong start in the first 45 minutes, Fullerton began the second half with another quick goal just five minutes in. Coronado put a corner inside the box that was cleared and passed right back to Ross McPhie who found some room in the box and put a shot inside the left post to give the Titans a 2-0 advantage.
"You always enjoy this time of the year because it's always fun playing these games and this is why we plat it," McPhie said. "It gives you a lot of energy and the boys know that it's do or die in this stage so we know we need to play with lots of energy. This is where we've been the most focused and had the most energy. We just feel that the energy lifts at this time of the year."
However, UC Santa Barbara answered right back as Kevin Feucht took a rebound off a CSUF defender and put a strike in the net to cut the Fullerton lead to 2-1 with a little over 25 minutes remaining.
With the momentum back, the Gauchos attack looked to have come back to life as they put the pressure on the Titans backline for about 10 minutes but CSUF goalkeeper Elias was being aggressive in the net and made some key plays to survive the UCSB threat.
In the final moments, Fullerton looked to be in great position as the defense was clearing each ball put into the box and when in the attacking half the Titan forwards were taking the ball into the corner.
Unfortunately, it wouldn't be a comfortable ending for the Titans as the Gauchos had three corner kicks in the final minute of the match, but the Fullerton backline held on to prevent the equalizer and secure the 2-1 win to give the Titans a spot in the Big West final for the third consecutive year.
"This has been one of the more unique years in my 30 years of coaching," Kuntz said.
Fullerton held a good amount of possession for the entire match and it showed in the box score as the Titans lead both shots (12-9) and corners (9-7), while goalkeeper David Elias made three key saves in the second half to eliminate UCSB from the conference tournament for the second-straight season.
Ticket and site information for the Big West Men's Soccer Tournament Championship Match can be found at bigwest.org. Saturday's match against the Matadors will begin at 5 p.m. PT.
For more updates on the Titans, follow us on Twitter (@CSUFMensSoccer) and like our Facebook page (Cal St. Fullerton Men's Soccer).