UCI denied NCAA bid

UC Irvine men's soccer coach George Kuntz was braced for the worst Monday when the NCAA Tournament pairings were announced. Still, he was unprepared for the disappointment of not receiving one of 48 berths, which meant an end to his team's season.

"The finality of it is pretty devastating," said Kuntz, whose Big West Conference regular-season champions (14-3-3) were ranked No. 8 in the latest national poll. UCI, which had been to two straight NCAA tournaments and had won two conference regular-season championships and two conference tournament crowns in the last three seasons, had been ranked as highly as No. 7 nationally. They also had been ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 in the West Region for much of the campaign.

But a poor RPI ranking (No. 62), a loss in the Big West Tournament semifinal to Cal State Fullerton, and two losses in their last three games, helped weaken the Anteaters' case.

Kuntz said lack of a travel budget limited his opportunities to bolster the schedule.

"Our athletic department was fortunate enough to let us schedule Drake (a 1-1 nonconference tie in Des Moines, Iowa), which was a final-eight team last year," Kuntz said. "We knew we needed a team like that on our schedule, a team that would generally give you a pretty good RPI in the Midwest. But Drake [8-7-2 with an RPI of 72] had a poor year."

Though only 10 of the 48 NCAA Tournament teams had more wins than UCI, only two that got in — Santa Clara and Sacramento State — were worse in the RPI listings.

Santa Clara (10-5-5 with an RPI of 65) however, won the West Coast Conference Tournament to earn an automatic berth, as well as the conference regular-season title.

Sacramento State (9-4-7 with an RPI of 73), which defeated UCI, 2-0, in a nonconference game in Sacramento, won the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament to earn an automatic berth.

New Mexico (9-5-5 with an RPI of 53) and Denver (9-5-4 with an RPI of 36) both earned at-large berths out of the MPSF. Kuntz singled out Denver and New Mexico as teams he believes were less-deserving than UCI.

"I'm incredulous that teams like Denver and New Mexico got in," Kuntz said. "The MPSF is a weak conference. We beat the runner-up in that conference (a 4-0 win over Cal State Bakersfield) and [Denver and New Mexico] were not even ranked in the top 10 in the region. They were not even considered for weeks by coaches voting for the regional top 10. So, the RPI must have played heavily into it."

Kuntz, whose team reached the NCAA round of 16 in 2008 and lost in the second round last season, said this year's group, anchored by standout senior forwards Amani Walker (11 goals and two assists) and Spencer Thompson (six goals and six assists), senior defenders Corey Attaway (five goals and three assists) and Joel Bagby, senior midfielder Gray Bailey, as well as junior goalie Andrew Fontein (11 shutouts), and junior midfielder Miguel Ibarra (one goal and 10 assists), may have been his best.

"This team was probably better than the last two," Kuntz said.

"As a coach, I'm a fighter and I'm going to continue to fight to build this program to one that is in the NCAA Tournament every year," Kuntz said. "It's a long process and there are so many things that have to fall into place. The recruits, injuries … It's a big process."

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World