There was no suspense, only anticipation for the UC Irvine men's soccer team, which by virtue of its Big West Conference Tournament final victory Saturday night had assured itself a bid in the NCAA Tournament, for which pairings were announced Monday.
When left to fend for an at-large berth, UCI had twice been snubbed in the last six seasons, including last year.
This year, the Anteaters (16-5-1) are the No. 8 national seed and will enjoy a first-round bye. They will meet either Saint Mary's (8-6-5) or Cal State Bakersfield (12-3-5) on Sunday at home at 6 p.m.
Saint Mary's and Cal State Bakersfield will play Thursday at Bakersfield.
If victorious, UCI could play host to St. John's, which eliminated the Anteaters in the round of 16 in 2008 in New York. St. John's (14-6-2) also has a first-round bye and will face either Fairfield or Brown in Sunday's second round.
But UCI Coach George Kuntz, who has guided his team to its third NCAA Tournament appearance in four seasons, said his focus won't stray past Sunday.
"We played Bakersfield in the fall and this last spring and they are very good," Kuntz said. "And Saint Mary's is a very aggressive, physical team. So that's a craps shoot."
Whichever school UCI faces, Kuntz said his players will benefit from their postseason experience, which included a dramatic 3-2 double-overtime win over UC Santa Barbara in the conference tournament final Saturday at UCI.
"I think it's different for us, experience-wise," Kuntz said. "We're all excited, but it's also a matter of, OK, what's next? What do we have to do [moving forward]. That's one of the benefits of getting [the automatic berth]. You know you're in the tournament, now it's just a matter of mentally getting ready for it. And, a lot of these guys have been [to the NCAA Tournament] before, so they want more."
UCI also received a first-round bye in 2009, then it lost a second-round game at home to Stanford.
"It's good we got a first-round bye," UCI senior midfielder Jimmy Turner said. "That's really important for us. We need to get rest for some of our important players, who have some bumps and bruises here and there."
UCI has won three straight after a stretch in which it went 1-3-1. The Anteaters opened the season with seven straight victories and have outscored opponents, 44-22.
The No. 8 seed comes after the 'Eaters were ranked No. 11 in the final NCAA coaches' poll. UCI is also No. 8 in the Ratings Percentage Index, which is designed to gauge strength of schedule.
The 'Eaters are led by senior midfielder Miguel Ibarra, the conference tournament MVP who was named Offensive Co-Player of the Year in the conference on Monday. Ibarra had a team-best eight goals and he also has eight assists.
Christian Hernandez, a senior forward and midfielder, has seven goals and 10 assists, while sophomore Enrique Cardenas (six goals and three assists) and senior Christopher Santana (four goals and five assists) also have double-digit points.
Hernandez joined Ibarra, junior midfielder Everett Pitts and senior Andrew Fontein (the conference Goalkeeper of the Year) as members of the All-Big West first team.
Fontein, a four-year starter, has nine shutouts this season, 29 in his career.
Senior midfielder Jimmy Turner and sophomore defender Marco Franco were both second-team all-conference honorees.
Franco, who missed Saturday's match after taking an elbow to the head in the conference semifinal, will be ready to play Sunday, Kuntz said.
Saint Mary's is the West Coast Conference regular-season champion and haswon four of its last five. The Gaels have outscored foes, 19-17, this season. Their leading scorers are Julian Godinez (three goals and six assists) and Agustin Cazarez (four goals, including three game-winners, and two assists).
Bakersfield, making its first NCAA Tournament appearance, was bested on penalty kicks in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament finale against New Mexico (17-0-3).
The Roadrunners feature Gyasi Zardes, who has 18 of the team's 39 goals.
Jesus Sanchez has three goals and 13 assists for the Roadrunners.
Bakersfield and St. Mary's played to a scoreless tie in their regular-season meeting on Sept. 18.
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