They throw tortillas in this rivalry. Tortillas.
Of course, this may be old news for those familiar with the Blue-Green rivalry, the longstanding Central Coast feud between Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara. For me, it’s all new — tortillas and all. And on Thursday and Saturday nights, I was witness to all variety of tortilla — corn, flour, burrito and taco — being tossed through the night air as the men’s and women’s soccer teams went at it inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
The men’s installment, a raucous sellout of 11,075, being the most astounding, will stick with me as one of the most unique soccer rivalry traditions I’ve seen. It actually caused quite a bit of consternation during the men’s game, with the Cal Poly public address announcer frequently requesting that the tortilla tossing cease lest the game be canceled, which I think would have created quite a bit of a bigger problem than flying taco shells.
During the women’s game, I witnessed a couple of fans — UCSB fans — getting the boot for tossing a tortilla.
But with the police and security presence prolific so as not to allow anything get truly out of hand, I say let the tortillas fly.
And here’s why: What’s not new to me are soccer rivalries — “derbies” or “darbies” to the football vernacular inclined — having previously worked for Major League Soccer and attended a number of Cascadia Cup clashes between the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders.
Those matches feature what they call “tifo” — giant banners usually proclaiming regional dominance that are, especially in the case of those made by the Timbers Army, very meticulously conceived — not to mention throngs of mostly inebriated, rowdy fans. The tortilla toss doesn’t take much more than a quick trip to the supermarket and a quick wrist flip, but it’s creative nonetheless. It’s also very Californian, the regional significance being another part of a good soccer rivalry.
And the Blue-Green rivalry is about as Californian as it gets. The rosters on all four teams are made up mostly of California natives, the women’s teams especially so with only one non-native on the two rosters.
“It’s kids being kids. ... Kids are having fun. Our main goal is to keep everybody safe, make sure everybody has a good time but within reason.” Cal Poly police officer Felipe Lucero on tortilla throwing
Mustangs defender Chelsea Barry, the goal scorer in their 1-1 draw Thursday night on a breathtaking 35-yard missile of a free kick, played club soccer with three members of the Gauchos team.
“Honestly it brings the energy to a whole new level,” Barry said of the familiarity of the rivalry participants.
Her Monte Vista High School teammate Madeline Gibson knew firsthand Barry’s free-kick capabilities having been on hand for something similar during her high school days that was featured on the popular blog TopDrawerSoccer.com.
“When she went up to take the kick, I was like, ‘This is Chelsea’s forte, here it comes,” Gibson said. “And right when she took the kick, I knew it was going in. And there was nothing our keeper could have done about it, it was phenomenal, an absolutely gorgeous goal.’ ”
It’s just what makes these rivalry games great for the players, those connections. For the fans, it’s Central Coast pride and bragging rights. Just like in the Portland-Seattle rivalry, it’s being proud of where you live, the colors you wear, that you bleed. And just like Portland-Seattle, the Blue-Green game is the premier rivalry for its level.
Over the past four years, this game has resulted in the eight highest attended collegiate soccer games in the United States, outranking every NCAA tournament and College Cup contest.
“It’s the showcase of the entire country,” said Cal Poly men’s head coach Steve Sampson, who is no stranger to high-level soccer rivalries as the former U.S. men’s national team head coach who led the Stars and Stripes into a handful of games against bitter rival Mexico. “The fan support by both schools, the quality of the games that generally take place during what we call ‘darbies,’ you know it’s special and tonight was no exception.”
High praise indeed. Following the men’s team’s 2-1 loss Saturday night, senior and team captain Justin Dhillon I’m pretty sure got a little choked up when I asked him what it meant having played in his last Blue-Green home game.
“Honestly, I don’t think the emotions have hit quite yet,” he said.
He, clearly, will remember the tortillas.
Cal Poly assistant director of communications Chris Giovannetti told me the tortilla throwing originated with UCSB years ago, but recently Cal Poly students adopted it for the big soccer rivalry. He isn’t quite sure why.
And it’s very true, we can’t have fans throwing things on the field — usually. Tortillas? Can there be some sort of concession made?
“It’s kids being kids. ... Kids are having fun,” University police officer Felipe Lucero told me. “Our main goal is to keep everybody safe, make sure everybody has a good time but within reason.”
Ever hear of a flying tortilla injuring someone? Not likely.
The biggest travesty of the whole thing was the shamefully low attended women’s game. That should change. And if you can break national records for men’s attendance, surely something similar can be achieved for the women.
No, the tortillas should be celebrated. They should pass them out at the gate: “For every tortilla tossed, a bag is donated to the local food bank.”
Just be safe out there, you crazy kids. But wait, there is perhaps another until now faceless victim to the tossing of tortillas, who Bay Area native Jimmy Frazier proudly represented Saturday night. He’s in his fifth year at Cal Poly and was working security for the game, his second time working the Blue-Green game. He’s a construction management major.
“Someone has to pick all those tortillas up,” he said after the game, arms full of tattered flour burrito shells.
That someone on this night was Frazier and his colleagues.
“Yeah, exactly,” he said, shaking his head.
Dan Itel, sports editor: 805-781-7989, firstname.lastname@example.org, @dan_itel.