By winning its fourth Big West Conference regular-season title in six years, the UC Irvine men's soccer team officially rendered the 2012 season the anomaly Coach George Kuntz believed it to be all along.
Championship play, including three conference tournament titles and recurring trips to the NCAA Tournament, are perennially the norm for these Anteaters, who came from behind to defeat Cal State Northridge, 2-1, to end the regular season on Saturday night.
With the win UCI, ranked No. 25 by Top Drawer Soccer, improved to 12-4-3. 7-2-1 in conference. With 22 points (three for a win and one for a tie), Kuntz's squad dominated the four-team Big West South Division, in which No. 20-ranked Northridge (13-5-1, 5-4-1), which was ranked No. 5 when it lost at home to UCI on Oct. 26, finished second with 16 points.
It's a far cry from last season, when the 'Eaters ended a run of four straight winning campaigns by finishing 4-15-1 and losing 10 games decided by one goal.
"Big turnaround," said Kuntz, who was almost indignant about this year not being thought of in those terms before the season began. "Some people may want to call it a rebound year, but we know we have something," Kuntz said before 2013 kicked off.
By claiming the division crown, UCI gets a bye in the first round of the conference tournament that begins Tuesday. UCI will play host to a semifinal matchup on Friday against either UC Davis or UC Riverside.
The tournament final, which UCI won in 2011, 2009 and 2008 to claim an automatic NCAA berth, will also be held at UCI, should the 'Eaters advance.
Fitness, depth, determination and defense are the primary reasons UCI has swung the pendulum back in the right direction this season.
All were on display Saturday, though the Matadors cashed in a defensive miscue to take a 1-0 lead in the 12th minute.
Junior forward Edwin Rivas scored the unassisted tally with a drive from the left wing.
But UCI, which has now come from behind in three of its victories this season and also battled back from a deficit to earn two ties, showed its composure once again.
"We keep our heads in the game," said UCI redshirt freshman Thomas Janjigian, whose two assists on corner kicks gave him three for the season. "It's a complete mentality the whole game. We just stay confident."
Janjigian helped the collective confidence of UCI players and fans by connecting with junior forward Cameron Iwasa, who headed in the Anteaters' tying goal in the 30th minute.
Janjigian then connected with junior defender Bryan Breslin, who headed in his first goal of the season in the 42nd minute for the game-winner.
UCI finished with a 10-7 advantage in shots and sophomore goalkeeper Michael Breslin, Bryan's brother, had three saves.
Bryan Breslin and Janjigian also stood out on the back line, where seniors Tarek Morad and Marco Franco, who were recognized with their families as part of senior night pregame festivities, also contributed.
Iwasa, whose six goals are now one fewer than team leader Enrique Cardenas, another senior, led the winners with four shots. Cardenas, Franco, senior Christopher Santana and Michael Sperber, another redshirt freshman, also had shots for the hosts, who have also relied on starting midfielders Mitchell Alvarez and Mats Bjurman.
But Kuntz said a willingness to substitute liberally with young players has helped keep everyone fresh and healthy.
"We have more chemistry and a better rotation," Kuntz said. "We've trusted more players to come in and do a job. Early in the season, we kept the same guys in and we got more fatigued. Now, we have younger guys doing well for us 15 or 20 minutes a game. Last year, we didn't have that."
The Anteaters have plenty last year's team didn't, including a conference championship.