The stage was set after the Highlanders secured a scrappy 0-0 draw against Cal State University Northridge (CSUN). In a rematch of last year’s Big West Championship, the No. 6 seed UCR Highlanders would travel to face the No. 3 seed UC Santa Barbara Gauchos for a spot in the Big West Semifinal against UC Irvine. In last year’s final, Luka Lucic’s goal helped the Highlanders edge the visiting Gauchos in a narrow 1-0 victory. With both teams returning many players from the 2022 season, last year’s championship game was fresh on everyone’s mind. The Highlanders needed to dig deep against a revengeful Gauchos team at their home ground.

Right at kick-off, the Highlanders proved they were up for the challenge. Junior Noah Lopez helped lead UCR’s forward line as they worked hard to pressure Santa Barbara’s backline early in the match. However, the Gaucho’s defense did well to maintain possession in the first half. Nevertheless, Lopez would be rewarded for his hard work out of possession. Senior Aleksander Vukovic launched a free-kick from UCR’s own half. The second ball bounces nicely for freshman Jackson D’Alessandro, who slides a pass to Lopez. He holds off multiple Gauchos while finding an angle for a shot. Santa Barbara’s Leroy Zeller rushes out of his net to make a save, but Lopez nutmegs him to put the Highlanders ahead in the 23rd minute. A back-and-forth first half concluded with UCR in front 1-0. 

After a fast-paced first half, it was expected the game may settle down a bit after the intermission. However, the second half proved to be more of the same. In just the 46th minute, senior Carlos Gonzalez caught the Gauchos off guard with a long punt, which found the head of senior Luka Lukic. He flicked it forward for senior Armando Ibarra Jr., who perfectly chipped Leroy Zeller to extend UCR’s lead to 2. The game was still far from over, and the resilient Gauchos refused to be put away. 

Down by two goals, UCSB looked to force the action against the Highlanders in the second half. After Luka Lukic saw his shot go wide, Santa Barbara kept finding themselves in dangerous positions in front of UCR’s goal. One-on-one with Pablo Figueroa of the Gauchos, Jackson D’Alessandro, with help from senior Joel Rivera, forced Figueroa’s shot high. Nonetheless, UCSB kept pushing and pushing to try to break through the UCR defense. In the 54th minute, an outside-the-box shot from Santa Barbara’s Nemo Phillip forced a diving save from Gonzalez. As Phillip’s shot was struck with incredible pace, Gonzalez failed to catch it cleanly. The rebound spills right in front of Nicolas Willumsen, who scores from the six-yard box, cutting the Highlander lead in half.

Leading 2-1, the Highlanders were still on track to advance to the semifinal until the 78th minute. Battling with Jackson D’Alessandro, Filip Basili earned a corner kick for the Gauchos. Alexis Ledoux whips in an inswinging ball for Nalu Mack. Mack’s header is deflected off Noah Lopez and out of danger for the Highlanders. However, the referee signals to the penalty spot. The Highlanders swarm the referee, pleading that the shot went off Lopez’s chest rather than his shoulder. Even UCR head coach Tim Cupello received a yellow card in the chaos. Riverside’s appeal is disregarded as Ledoux steps up to the penalty spot for the Gauchos. He sends Gonzalez the wrong way and evens the score. 

With all the momentum on their side, the Gauchos were looking for a winner before the end of regulation. With another corner in the 86th minute, Ledoux whips in another inswinger for UCSB. Santa Barabara’s Salvador Aguilar rises to the occasion and blasts a header past Gonzalez. The deflated Highlanders couldn’t find an equalizer before time expired. 3-2 was the final score in Santa Barbara. With many crucial players graduating after this year, it’s a crushing conclusion to the 2023 season for the Highlanders. It will be interesting to see how Tim Cupello and the rest of the squad will respond to this loss next season.