'Eaters' season ends

IRVINE — There was a time when UC Irvine men's soccer players and coaches would have taken consolation in winning the Big West Conference regular-season and tournament titles, then not catching a break in the NCAA Tournament.

But it speaks to the progress that the recent frequency of those accomplishments has created that those days no longer exist.

So it was that after the Anteaters lost, 2-1, in the second overtime of their NCAA second-round match against visiting Saint Mary's on Sunday, UCI Coach George Kuntz delivered this news to his heartbroken team.

"One of the things I just talked about with the team was, 'This isn't good enough,' " said Kuntz, whose team (16-6-1), the No. 8 national seed, would have been at home against Brown in the round of 16, had it advanced past the Gaels (10-6-5). "For our program, we want to be in the final four teams and then let's see what happens. Our goal is to be national champion.

"So, for us, for the younger guys, it was great work by the older guys, by the seniors, great groundwork laid by teams before us. But for us to be really nationally recognized, we have to be able to overcome these types of games, with whoever it is. We were at home."

Kuntz said Saint Mary's brought a type of physical play that contrasts with UCI's more technical approach.

"In [the first half] they took out our two leading scorers [senior Miguel Ibarra left in the 13th minute with left-leg injury and senior Christian Hernandez exited in the 38th minute with an unspecified leg injury] and it didn't make for a pretty game," Kuntz said.

And while the first half finished scoreless and both Ibarra, the Big West Co-Offensive Player of the Year, and Hernandez, a first-team all-conference performer, returned to start the second half, Kuntz said the absence of a duo that had produced 15 goals and 18 assists coming in, clearly depleted his team.

"I think there was a little drop-off when those two got hurt," Kuntz said. "We lost a little momentum right there and it made a difference. We got into halftime and it was tied, but we end up chasing the game in the second half, instead of leading and being ahead. When teams are chasing the game, it changes the way they play and it opens them up, because they have to score. I think we weren't effective in those moments. I think it shook our guys up to see two of our oldest guys out of the game. And we didn't know if they were coming back in, so there was a lot of uncertainty there. It was difficult."

The difficulties for UCI, which appeared somewhat listless in the first 45 minutes, intensified in the 58th minute, when Riley Hanley, a Saint Mary's freshman reserve midfielder, spun and drilled a left-footed shot from the top of the 18-yard box that whistled through a maze of players and into the net.

It was Hanley's second goal of the season.

UCI held a 5-4 advantage in shots at halftime and finished with a 14-13 edge in that department.

But it wasn't until Ibarra booted home a throw-in from senior Jimmy Turner in the 84th minute to tie the score, that UCI had anything but frustration to show for its increasingly frenetic pace after intermission.

"We did well to get back into it and we showed a lot of character, especially the effort that all the guys put in and minutes ticking on the clock," said Kuntz, whose team rallied to tie the Big West tournament final late in regulation, then won in overtime over visiting UC Santa Barbara on Nov. 12.

The score remained tied through the first 10-minute overtime, but Saint Mary's, playing in only the third NCAA Tournament game in its history, produced the game-winner off a ricochet header in front that was headed in by 5-foot-8 sophomore reserve forward Justin Howard in the 103rd minute.

The score, Howard's fourth of the season, sparked a wild celebration by the visitors and saw the UCI players drop to the rain-soaked grass, either prone or on their knees, seemingly stunned and obviously disappointed.

"We haven't been the best this year in the air," Kuntz said. "If you look at the goals we've given up, most of them have been like that [headers in front]. And I'm sure [the Gaels] knew that. [Howard] was in the right place, but we had three good chances to clear that ball and we didn't. That's on us. Give them credit, they were persistent. The ball drops to [Howard] and [he] buries it."

It was the second second-round setback for UCI, which received a first-round bye this season and in 2009, its last NCAA Tournament appearance. UCI also had a first-round bye in its NCAA Tournament debut in 2008, when it defeated Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in the second round and lost at St. John's in the round of 16.

The loss ended the collegiate careers of key UCI seniors Andrew Fontein (a school-record 29 career shutouts and 50 goalie wins), Ibarra (nine goals and eight assists this season), Hernandez (seven goals and 10 assists in 2011), Turner (81 career games, second in UCI annals) and skillful defender Bello Alhassan.

But plenty of standouts, including first-team all-conference defender Everett Pitts and offensive catalysts Christian Santana, Enrique Cardenas, Tarek Morad, Cameron Iwasa, Trey Hayes, and Juan Gutierrez, as well as starting defenders Jake Marcon and Marco Franco, are set to return. In addition, a strong recruiting class has been secured.

"There's a lot of promise," Kuntz said. "So, we hope that people haven't seen the last of us."

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