It's not as if they take success for granted, but the players and coaches for the UC Irvine men's soccer team have come to expect nothing less than championships.
Just more than one week after claiming their fourth Big West Conference regular-season title, the Anteaters defeated Cal State Northridge, 1-0, on Sunday to earn their fourth conference tournament crown in six seasons.
This year's success, which comes with an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament, for which pairings will be announced on Monday, comes on the heels of an unfortunate 2012 campaign in which Coach George Kuntz's 'Eaters dropped 10 one-goal decisions and finished 5-14-1, 2-8 in conference.
With Sunday's win, UCI's seventh in a row to extend its unbeaten streak to eight, the 'Eaters take a 13-4-2 record into their fourth NCAA Tournament appearance. After posting their ninth shutout of the season, they also take supreme confidence.
"We all believe we are going to be the hardest-working team on the field," said junior forward Cameron Iwasa, who had the game's only goal in the 66th minute. "Every single one of us believes we are the most talented team on the field, regardless of who we are playing. I mean we played UCLA this year and they are the No. 1 team in the country [a 3-1 UCI home win on Sept. 13]. There's no question in our minds we were the better team that day. This [title] isn't anything we didn't expect. We expect to win every game we play. So the fact that we have put a [winning] streak like this together has not been surprising for us."
The goal began when sophomore defensive midfielder Mats Bjurman intercepted a pass near the top of the Matadors' 18-yard box. He immediately hit senior forward Enrique Cardenas, about 10 yards away and Cardenas fed the ball through two defenders onto the foot of Iwasa, who blasted it from directly in front of the right post, across his body and inside the opposite post.
It was the seventh goal of the season for Iwasa, who had the assist on UCI's game-winning goal in the 2011 overtime conference tournament final with UC Santa Barbara. Cardenas, who leads the 'Eaters with eight goals, earned his team-best sixth assist to give him 22 points for the season.
Cardenas, the Big West Midfielder of the Year who had a goal in a 2-0 win over UC Davis in Friday's semifinal, was named Most Valuable Player of the tournament.
"It has been a lot better," Cardenas said of the difference between last season and 2013. "We knew we were 10 minutes away form being an extraordinary team [the average time of the game-winner in the 10 one-goal losses was the 91st minute, including five overtime goals] last year, and it was just a matter of working those 10 extra minutes and being willing to put your body on the line. I feel a lot of our guys do that now and we just have that winning mentality. Whatever it takes to win, we're going to do it."
And winning is, once again, the UCI way.
"When we finished the game, I said to our players: That's what we do here," Kuntz said. "That's our tradition.
"It has been a long process. [Last season] we lost 10 games by one goal, so it was heart-breaking. And to endure that and come back … These guys were tremendous. We came back and had the same goal. We had a good spring, we knew we had something, and the guys just carried it from there."
UCI carried the early advantage in their third victory of the season over the Matadors (15-5-1), who turned things around quickly to earn a 6-4 halftime advantage in shots.
The Matadors, playing the first half without conference scoring leader Sego Lev Ari (16 goals and six assists including a hat trick in a 3-2 semifinal win over UCSB), who was suspended for the first half by the conference and his own athletic director for having taunted a UCSB player Friday, turned up the pressure in the second half.
But UCI, which had a 14-11 shot deficit for the game, also upped its offensive intensity. And Ari-Lev's lone shot was not on frame.
UCI senior Christopher Santana, who just missed wide right in the first half, just missed wide again early in the second half. He also had a 30-yard blast saved by CSUN goalkeeper Adam Hobbs in the 56th minute.
Northridge junior forward Edwin Rivas had a header go off the cross bar in the 51st minute and junior defender Tanner Snedigar missed one shot wide and had another header off a corner kick carry just over the cross bar in the 62nd and 86th minute, respectively.
"The [Snedigar header that was just high] scared me the most," Kuntz said. "I thought that was in."
After Iwasa put the 'Eaters ahead (a play on which Bjurman also earned an assist), Cardenas served up a golden opportunity to junior Dennis Martinez, who launched an open shot high from the top of the box in the 75th minute.
Then, with Hobbs extended to midfield to try to make a play, freshman Michael Sperber sent a shot from just inside midfield that bounded wide of the open net in the final 30 seconds.
UCI goalkeeper Michael Breslin came up big with four saves to earn his conference-best ninth shutout. He also extended his scoreless streak to 259 minutes, still shy of his season-best 290-minute stretch without allowing a goal.
"It has been a great effort with the whole back line," Breslin said of his defensive wall of Big West Defender of the Year Marco Franco, fellow senior center defender Tarek Morad, and outside backs Bryan Breslin, Michael's twin brother, and freshman Thomas Janjigian. "The coaches tell us to pride ourselves on defense, because if we get shutouts, we're going to win most games."
Kuntz was also quick to point out the defensive work of Sperber and Bjurman, who operate directly in front of the back line.