The Central Coast Classic: How Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara Became the Nation's Greatest Rivalry
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Fans are in for a treat tonight as Fox Soccer Channel, for the fourth time in five years, airs Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara in a showcase of the nation’s greatest college men’s soccer rivalry.
For the two towns on the Central Coast, separated by just 90 miles on Highway 101, it’s already a natural rivalry based on geographical proximity. Each school brings intensity, desire and toughness no matter what the sport.
But unquestionably the men’s soccer rivalry between the Mustangs and Gauchos has evolved into a different stratosphere. Three of the top-10 most attended games in NCAA history have featured Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara with crowds in excess of 11,000 people. Of the top 25 best-attended regular season matches in the history of collegiate soccer, nine of those belong to the Central Coast combatants.
In fact, last year’s matchup at Meredith Field at Harder Stadium – which also attracted the Fox Soccer Channel cameras – drew 13,822 spectators to rank No. 5 all-time on the NCAA list.
The Gaucho faithful get another chance to pack Harder Stadium and turn it into a sea of blue and gold tonight.
But how did the rivalry develop so quickly? All nine of the games on the NCAA top-25 list have occurred since 2007.
UC Santa Barbara’s ascension to the top of the college soccer world was one factor. The Gauchos won the national championship in 2006 and also appeared in the 2004 national championship match while becoming a perennial top-10 program under head coach Tim Vom Steeg.
The other part of the equation was the arrival of Paul Holocher to the Cal Poly campus seven years ago. Holocher envisioned establishing the same excitement and anticipation within the student body and surrounding community that his neighbors to the south had enjoyed. The Mustang head coach set out to develop positive relationships with the youth soccer community and organized several coaching and player clinics for the local soccer clubs.
If you build it, they will come. Figuratively and literally. In 2007, the school renovated one side of Alex G. Spanos Stadium. Holocher and the administration decided to host a “Break The Attendance” record night against UC Santa Barbara.
“The previous record for a Cal Poly soccer event was around 3,000. That evening we got over 7,000 people (officially 7,143), we beat UCSB 2-1 and there was a lot of excitement around it. And so we went the next year and the game was sold out,” said Holocher. “It’s grown a little bit each year. Now there’s no doubt it’s the biggest sporting event on the Central Coast each year. People mark it on their calendar.”
Vom Steeg agrees that 2007 was a pivotal year.
“That year in particular really has set up what we have today, which is a game that most fans and students feel like they can’t miss because something is going to happen on the field which is going to be great and they want to be part of it,” said Vom Steeg, in his 14th season at UCSB.
“The rivalry really got going in earnest when Paul became head coach. Paul came along and really ramped up particularly the game up at Cal Poly. I think it also might have been a reflection of us having won a national championship and going up there as a highly ranked team, and that set the energy up there to bring lots of people to the game.”
Vom Steeg paused.
“We then turned around and not to be outdone, when we returned that game back to Santa Barbara our goal was to beat that number that had attended up at Cal Poly.”
Sure enough, the Gauchos drew 8,102 fans to Harder Stadium on Nov. 3, 2007.
The next season – on Oct. 17, 2008, Cal Poly registered the first men’s soccer sellout in Spanos Stadium history when 11,075 flooded through the gates.
“It’s gotten to the point now where I’ve heard of people driving in from different states to come and watch the game,” said Holocher. “I know people have come from Arizona; I know people have flew in from Hawaii. That’s how much excitement there is around this rivalry.”
Vom Steeg knows firsthand how rabid Cal Poly is in indoctrinating its students to the whole rivalry experience. His nephew attends Cal Poly.
“At orientation they basically say there are only three things you need to do before you leave Cal Poly. On that list is attend a UCSB-Cal Poly soccer game. So it starts from the minute the freshmen are going through orientation.”
Vom Steeg also points out that the rivalry attracts more than just students, faculty and the community. It has gotten the attention of everyone around the country, including coaches and general managers from Major League Soccer.
“What it (the rivalry) has done is make it a talking point around the country. It highlights the Big West Conference. It’s a game in which if you were a coach or general manager of a professional MLS team, you want to see players perform in an environment that’s similar to Major League Soccer,” said Vom Steeg. “And you’re going to get that when Cal Poly plays UCSB.”
With so much talk about the buildup – the colors, the face paint, the chanting, the singing that goes on at both venues – the action on the field must satisfy the overall fan experience too.
And it does.
UC Santa Barbara defeated Cal Poly 2-0 to close out the 2011 regular season. It broke a streak of nine consecutive meetings between the two programs that were either tied or decided by one goal.
Players from both programs circle this game on their calendars too. They enjoy the rivalry immensely, especially paying a visit to the other’s field.
UCSB senior defender Peter McGlynn was a freshman in 2008 when Cal Poly sold out Spanos Stadium. He has seen firsthand how the rivalry continues to grow.
“Over the years it has been unbelievable. Their stadium is amazing for atmosphere, the way the fans kind of look down on you a bit. The buzz you get from it, you can tell the players just want to give 100 percent,” said McGlynn. “There’s a lot of pride at stake when you play each other. I feel with the crowds that each team gets, it’s about bragging rights for the Central Coast to win that game.”
Cal Poly junior defender Connor Dreschler has witnessed the rivalry too. He noted that he was sold on his recruiting trip to Cal Poly as a senior in high school after seeing green and gold everywhere in the stands.
“There’s no bigger rush of adrenaline that I’ve ever had in any game. It’s amazing to see the entire place filled,” said Dreschler. “As a soccer player, you look to play in front of big crowds like that because it’s not very often you get that opportunity.”
He added, “It’s awesome that the schools of Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara come out and support us like that and the communities really get behind it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
And he relishes playing at Santa Barbara, where six crowds in excess of 10,000 have attended games at Harder since 2004. The fans there can be intimidating and the passion is undeniable.
"It's all part of the experience," said Dreschler on the colorful UCSB fans. "It's enjoyable. I know they're trying to get in your head and they say stuff that isn't the nicest in the world. It's all in good fun."
So tonight begins another chapter in a heated, intense battle between two programs that don’t need any motivation to play each other. But there might be a little extra in tow.
Both teams enter tied for third place in the four-team Big West North Division – both 3-2-1 with 10 points and four games to play. Both trailing division leader Sacramento State (4-1-1, 13 points) and second place UC Davis (4-2-0, 12 points).
Only the top two teams from the North Division will advance to the Big West Tournament in early November. More than just bragging rights are on the line.
The fans will be the lucky recipients. Halloween just came early on the Central Coast. They’re in for a treat.