College: UC Irvine out to prove themselves once more

In the last four years, one of college soccer’s most successful programs has flown under the radar.

Call it an East Coast bias or a case of failing to give credit where it’s due, but UC Irvine is still searching for the respect that usually accompanies a 16-5-1 overall record in a season.

“We feel like we’re that team that has to keep proving themselves – we want people to be believers,” head coach George Kuntz told MLSsoccer.com over the phone.

Among their 16 wins was a 3-2 triumph over UC Santa Barbara in the Big West Tournament final, a victory that earned the Anteaters an automatic NCAA Tournament berth. It was the program’s 60th win over its last four seasons.

It wasn’t abundantly clear heading into the season that Irvine could pull such a performance off. Last fall, the Anteaters went an impressive 14-3-3, but a loss in the Big West Tournament – combined with a Ratings Percentage Index too weak to earn an at-large bid – scuttled their hopes of a national title shot.

RPI isn't an issue in 2011. Despite having a young team that had lost 14 players from the season before, Kuntz scheduled away games against top 10 powers Creighton and South Florida.

“When you get to the regular season, you don’t know how they’re going to step up,” Kuntz said. “We felt going into this season it was a little bit of a crap shoot not knowing what they’re going to bring at critical times.”

But the dice roll paid off in a big way. The offensive duo of seniors Christian Hernandez and Miguel Ibarra notched a combined 15 goals and 18 assists.

Kuntz raved about the abilities of his two playmakers, noting that Ibarra is one of the top talents out there, and an MLS-level player.

“He’s got to be one of the best players in the country,” Kuntz said. “His electricity, speed, athleticism and cardio are unbelievable. I’ve coached 25 years, [and] rarely do you find a guy who does not get tired, even in the most intense games. He has this ability to keep running.”

Both players will have to step up again if Irvine are to eclipse their previous top finish in the tournament, a Sweet 16 appearance in 2008.

With the eighth overall seed heading into the tournament, Irvine will host a second round game on Sunday against the winner of a Thursday night matchup between Cal State Bakersfield and St. Mary’s.

“All we care about is how we’re going to play in the first half of the next game, not even worry about how the other team is going to play,” Kuntz said. “That’s the only thing we’re concerning ourselves right now, and working on trying to be even sharper, even better at all the things we’ve been doing this entire season.”

Travis Clark covers D.C. United, college and youth soccer for MLSsoccer.com.