Goalkeeper grows into the job

Austin Mansker
Austin Mansker

By Mark Patton,Santa Barbara News-Press

Austin Mansker's right wrist is held together by a screw. His right knee is bound by a strand of muscle taken from his hamstring.

The beard, however, is holding its own all by itself.

UCSB's rookie goalkeeper, who sprouted seven weeks of dark whiskers while the Gauchos went undefeated through their first dozen matches and exhibition, is working on a new growth after Tuesday's shutout of first-place Sacramento State.

It got his chin back up for Friday's 8 p.m. home showdown against arch-rival Cal Poly, which will be televised nationally by the Fox Soccer Channel.

"He shaved it after we lost to Northridge, and so I guess he's starting up another one," UCSB coach Tim Vom Steeg said. "He's a Bay Area guy and it's a little bit of a 'fear the beard' thing. That's kind of popular up there these days, the kind of the thing to do up there as a baseball closer.

"Goalkeeping is 90 percent presence, and he doesn't look like somebody you want to run into when he comes out."

It does get kind of hairy.

"I've always been a big boy," said Mansker, who packs a solid 200 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame. "In high school, I once went out to kick for the football team and the coach wanted me to play linebacker.

"Since Day One here, the goalkeeper coach has had me going out and using my body and running into kids."

He wound up leaving parts of himself all over Harder Stadium during his first two seasons at UCSB, both of which he spent as a red-shirt. He separated his shoulder during his first week of practice in 2010 and then broke his wrist during workouts a few months later.

"He was gone all fall, and then spring came around, and he was still having trouble with the wrist," Vom Steeg said. "That really prompted us to look at getting another goalie. ... We went out and got Andre Grandt and, in our minds, those two guys were going to compete for the job."

That competition came to a crashing halt just before fall drills last year when Mansker tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee while playing for his club team in the Bay Area.

"I just went to close down on some guy and my cleats stuck in the turf," he recalled. "I heard it pop ... actually heard it. I went down and couldn't move. ... I knew it was bad right away."

Grandt wound up playing every minute of last season. Mansker, meanwhile, went into nine months of rehabilitation, and then into one-on-one workouts with goalkeeper coach Stuart Dobson, wondering if he'd ever get another chance.

"I was just trying to stay motivated," he said. "You don't know how many hours I spent in the training room and in the weight room. I pretty much weight-lifted for two years straight.

"Then, for awhile, we'd just do hand stuff, not a lot of footwork. I wore a brace for awhile. I spent lots of hours alone with Stuart on this field, knowing that I was going to do everything it took. I wasn't going to quit."

He suffered a mental blow when Dobson left UCSB to take a coaching job at the University of Akron just before the start of fall workouts.

"Stu is the one who basically recruited me - he came out to see me play, and he brought me here," Mansker said. "He's the one who kept me working and training, just him and me, trying to get me back from those injuries. When he said he was going to Akron, I told him, 'Well, we'd better get somebody who knows what he's doing.'

"Well, I've been really grateful and lucky to get someone as good as Paul (Hart) to take his place. He's really pushed me hard and gotten me sharp. I feel I'm in good hands there."

Mansker was admittedly nervous when he made his debut during the second half of this years's exhibition against Westmont College.

"It was nerve-wracking," he recalled. "My first touch on the ball, it went up in the air, and I had to bring it down."

He was stunned when Vom Steeg announced that he'd be starting the season opener at Loyola Marymount.

"I had a hard time sleeping the night before the match," Mansker conceded. "I was hoping to work my way in toward the middle of the season, just whenever my chance came."

But Vom Steeg figured that Mansker was a better match-up than Grandt against a Loyola team that likes to dump balls into the box.

"Andre is a shot-stopper, he's low to the ground and he's good with his feet," he said. "But what Austin offered to us was size in the box - and he's got good strong hands and is good in the air."

Grandt still remained an option for Vom Steeg, but a hip injury to 6-foot-6 center back Peter Schmetz during the fourth game against Valparaiso left UCSB vulnerable to head balls and convinced him to stick with Mansker.

"The minute we lost Schmetz, it was not even a question," he said. "As a goalie, if you know Schmetz is there 8-yards out, you know he has it, so it keeps you in your goal. But we don't have anyone that big now.

"The thing is, Mansker is strong, he's physical, he comes out, and he gets enough on the punch to clear it out of danger and it just goes away."

He's got a round-house to rival Rocky Marciano, and a fearlessness to match. He still charges hard off his line, thinking not of the screw in his wrist nor the transplanted hamstring that binds his knee. He was laughing on Tuesday about the cleat marks he got on his abdomen while defending a corner kick.

"I just keep playing out there," Mansker said. "I'm thankful for every day I'm out there. It's a blessing.

"These last few years, I've always had to look forward to the future. That's all I had. Now I'm here, on the field, and I'm going to live in the present."

But then, he would like to look like Santa Claus by December.

To ensure you don't miss out on tonight's FOX Soccer Channel televised contest between UCSB and Cal Poly, purchase your tickets by visiting the Ticket Office in the Intercollegiate Athletics Building on campus, calling (805) 893-UCSB or by clicking here.