IRVINE — While a handful of his players were toppling like lawn ornaments under siege from drive-by Halloween vandals, UC Irvine men's soccer coach George Kuntz kept his eye on the scoreboard and his energy on asking his team for more.
Kuntz got what he wanted with the Anteaters' 2-0 home Big West Conference South Division victory over UC Riverside on Wednesday. The win kept UCI (8-4-3, 3-2-1 in conference) in the thick of the title hunt in the four-team division race.
UCI moved into a second-place tie with Cal State Fullerton in the South Division, two points behind No. 5-ranked Cal State Northridge (4-1-1 in conference), which edged Fullerton, 2-1, in overtime on Wednesday.
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The 'Eaters visit Cal State Northridge on Saturday at 7 p.m. It's one of four remaining regular-season games that provide an opportunity to challenge the Matadors and perhaps secure a top-two division finish that will provide a berth in the four-team conference tournament. Northridge is at UCI in the regular-season finale Nov. 9.
"It's competitive," Kuntz said of the division race. "It's good. Northridge won [Wednesday] so it takes the lead. But we are in striking distance and if we can do what we need to do, then we can make it a two-horse race."
UCI did what it needed to do against the Highlanders (6-6-3, 1-4-1), including scoring early.
Junior midfielder Mitchell Alvarez pounced on a turnover and fired in a shot from about 10 yards directly in front of the goal in the sixth minute to help take a little edge off for the hosts.
The goal, however, appeared to enlarge the chip on the collective shoulders of the visitors, who were clawing to try to avoid last place. UCR's determination manifested itself in a sometimes-reckless brand of physical play that produced five yellow cards and one red card, the latter leaving the Highlanders one player short for the final 18 minutes of the contest.
"That was a very physical game," said Kuntz, who noted that defender Marco Franco, with whom a flying Highlander collided while going for a ball in the air, will be evaluated for a potential concussion. "To see Marco and [fellow defender] Tarek Morad, as well as our goalkeeper [Michael Breslin] and our right back [Bryan Breslin] go down was tough. Four of our five players in the back got leveled, two of them with head injuries. Nobody was bloodied but we don't know about Marco. That could be big for us."
Despite holding the lead, UCI maintained offensive pressure, building a 12-6 shot advantage that included several quality chances.
Junior forward Trey Hayes was taken down from behind while charging toward the goal in the 58th minute, but no penalty kick was called, much to the chagrin of the groaning home rooters.
The Highlanders, however, were forced to pay for their rough play when Christopher "Chino" Santana was flipped head-over-heels by a charging tackler while holding possession of the ball on a run inside the box in the 86th minute. Santana buried the resulting penalty kick and UCI withstood a late barrage from the Highlanders to record its sixth shutout of the season.
"It was a little scrappy," Santana said of the contest in which three UCI players were issued yellow cards. "I thought the first one with Trey was definitely a penalty kick, but we finally got one. I think I earned that one."
Santana led the hosts with four shots, while senior Enrique Cardenas had three. Five additional Anteaters had one shot apiece and Michael Breslin finished with just one save.
"We didn't want to give them too much time on the ball," Santana said. "We knew this team could play and they like to touch the ball. The more touches on the ball, the more confidence they get, so we just tried to keep the ball on our feet."
Keeping themselves on their feet proved more problematic for the winners.