IRVINE — The UC Irvine men's soccer team, with two surprising NCAA Tournament snubs in the previous four seasons, made a clear statement as to its viability as a veritable lock to make this year's 48-team NCAA field on Wednesday.
Or was it an opening remark?
The host Anteaters, who repeated as Big West Conference regular-season champions to earn the No. 1 seed in the four-team conference tournament, scored 35 seconds into the Big West Tournament semifinal against No. 4-seeded UC Riverside.
A subsequent 2-0 triumph was, most believe, enough to secure UCI's position as one of the elite teams in the West Region. Coach George Kuntz's squad is ranked No. 11 by the national coaches assn. and it sat at No. 8 in the latest RPI breakdown, which measures strength of schedule.
UCI (15-5-1), which lost in the Big West Tournament semifinals last year and was denied an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament, despite having won the conference regular-season title, will meet UC Santa Barbara at home on Saturday in the conference tournament final at 7 p.m.
UCSB (14-5-1), which was defeated, 2-0, on Oct. 1 in Santa Barbara, is ranked No. 15 with a No. 10 RPI.
UC Riverside (9-6-4), with an RPI at No. 34, is a strong candidate to gain an at-large NCAA Tournament berth, as the Big West ranks second in conference RPI.
"If we had beaten Fullerton last year, we would have been in," Kuntz said. "I feel this [win] puts us a lot closer. UCSB is a good team and Saturday is going to be great for the fans. I don't think there will be too many empty seats [at Anteater Stadium]."
Those in their seats for the kickoff Wednesday did not wait long for a goal.
From near midfield, sophomore midfielder Christopher Santana served into sophomore defender Marco Franco, who was making a run on the right flank. Franco sprinted onto the ball drove a cross toward the near post, where freshman forward Cameron Iwasa headed it in for all the hosts would need.
"That's the fastest goal I've ever scored in my career," said Iwasa, who has three goals this season, including one in a 3-2 home loss to the Highlanders on Oct. 29. "We wanted to come out with a lot of intensity; come out right away and get after them. Before the game, we were like 'Let's score in the first 10 [minutes].' I guess the first minute isn't bad either."
UCI had a 7-5 shot advantage at halftime and wound up with a 13-9 edge. But it appeared the Anteaters dominated play much more than that stat indicated.
And while the offense was not connecting for quality chances, the UCI defense was doing what it needed to secure the team's ninth shutout of the season, its fourth in its last five contests.
Senior goalkeeper Andrew Fontein made six saves to notch his 29th career blanking. When he wasn't stopping shots, he was darting away from the cage to intercept crosses and thwart potential runs in the box by scooping the ball up before it could find an oncoming attacker.
"Fontein did really well tonight," Kuntz said. "He was great on crosses. I thought he came off his line better. I've been chewing him out about not doing that earlier in the season."
Kuntz also singled out the play of defenders Everett Pitts, a junior, and senior Bello Alhassan.
Sophomore Jake Marcon and Franco, who was elbowed near the eye in the 58th minute, prompting senior midfielder Jimmy Turner to drop back into a fullback spot he occupied the last two seasons, also played well on the back line.
Tarek Morad, a sophomore midfielder, settled the ball on a pass from senior Christian Hernandez and slotted it into the net from 25 yards out in the 31st minute to round out the scoring. Morad later exited with what Kuntz called a high-ankle sprain.
Pitts said the eight-day layoff from the regular-season finale, allowed the Anteaters to strengthen their season goals.
"We want to go for the double [regular-season and tournament titles]," Pitts said. "That was one of our main goals for the year. After winning league, we want to win the tournament. If we do, we get a better seed in the NCAA Tournament and in the long run, that will probably help us."