The UC Riverside Highlanders made history on Saturday evening, downing UC Santa Barbara 4-1 for their first Big West regular season championship in program history. The Highlanders earned the No. 1 seed in the upcoming Big West Men’s Soccer Championship.
A ruckus and energetic crowd at UC Riverside Soccer Stadium watched the Highlanders finish job one of two on Saturday.
"The atmosphere is amazing," UC Riverside head coach Tim Cupello said. "We have an advantage every time we get to play at home, especially like tonight when the fans come out. It's a championship for the university, not just for our program. We finished one job and now we have to finish another. I want these guys to enjoy this championship, but the job isn't done.”
Saturday's Senior Night had a chippy start with seven fouls early in the match – six committed by the Gauchos – before Noah Lopez opened the scoring in the 12th minute on a free kick deflection from Brendan Clark.
UC Santa Barbara converted an equalizer in the 30th minute on a ball that bounced around in the box.
Issa Badawiya made his mark on Senior Night with the go-ahead goal in the 55th minute, rocketing a deflection from the Gaucho goalkeeper into the top corner for the 2-1 Highlander lead. Oscar Penate made it two seniors with a goal after receiving a cross from Noah Lopez in the 73rd minute and finding the opposite corner.
Goalkeeper Carlos Gonzalez came up clutch for the Highlanders late in the match to help UC Riverside secure the conference title. He came off his line for the save in the 83rd minute for the save that kept the Highlanders' two-goal lead, then remained on his toes for a Gaucho direct free kick a minute later. He was clinical in his box for the rest of the way.
Luka Lukic put the icing on the cake with an 89th-minute strike that cemented the win.
UC Riverside will enter the Big West Men’s Soccer Championship as the one seed with a first-round bye into the semifinals, where they will host the winner of the No. 4 vs. No. 5 game on Saturday, November 5 at 7 p.m. at UC Riverside Soccer Stadium.
Two victories will earn the Highlanders an automatic bid into the 2022 NCAA Division I Men's Soccer Championship.