UCSB Hoping To Refill College Cup

Mark Massari had his own Field of Dreams moment shortly after becoming UCSB's director of athletics five years ago.

"I was driving around campus one morning," he recalled, "and suddenly I saw these acres and acres of kids playing soccer at Storke Field."

They've already come, so build it.

Reconstructing the Gauchos' worn and weary athletic infrastructure has been one of Massari's top missions since coming to UCSB, and much of it is already taking shape. Nearly $2 million in upgrades were made to Harder Stadium to help UCSB secure the 2010 NCAA College Cup.

"Bidding for the College Cup was one of the first things that was handed to me," he said, referring to the Final Four for NCAA men's soccer. "When I drove by Storke Field, I thought, 'Wow, we are like heaven for this.'

"We presented 'Soccer Heaven' as the slogan for our bid — that this is the perfect place to have this event."

Don't be surprised if you start hearing a new slogan now, something like "Heaven Revisited."

UCSB has submitted bids for three future men's College Cups — in 2014, 2015 and 2017 — as well as the 2016 women's College Cup.

"We're not going for 2016 as a joint bid," Massari said. "That'd be too taxing for us."

He was in sixth grade the last time UCSB played host to any kind of NCAA championship (the 1981 men's volleyball final between UCLA and USC).

UCSB had College Cup bids rejected twice before Massari came on board. He read the previous bids and noticed that they mostly highlighted the big crowds that the Gauchos were attracting. They've led the nation in attendance every season since winning the NCAA title in snowbound St. Louis in 2006.

"We decided to present this as less about UCSB and more about Santa Barbara and a community which supports soccer, from youth and club teams to adult rec leagues," he said. "When we started crafting it, the more we found that, per capita, we're ranked as one of the top communities in the country for soccer participation."

The NCAA warmed to Santa Barbara's bid because of its weather, but it also worried about fair-weather fans. All those Gaucho Locos might turn into Gaucho No-Shows if UCSB weren't one of the Final Four.

It was sunny and 73 degrees when Akron kicked off against Louisville for the 2010 final, but all of Santa Barbara didn't just head for the beach. The 9,672 fans that attended the match under sunny skies comprised the largest crowd for an NCAA championship game since 13,601 jammed into Carson's Home Depot Center in 2004.

And you'd have to put a Gaucho asterisk next to that count in 2004, since about half that number had driven up from Santa Barbara to watch UCSB face Indiana in a showdown that the Hoosiers won in a penalty-kick shootout.

Gaucho fever peaked during the 2010 College Cup season with an all-time high attendance average of 6,619 — nearly doubling that of second-place Akron (3,450). But college soccer was still popular at UCSB last year, even while the Gauchos were failing to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in more than a decade. They led the nation again with an average of 5,543 fans per game.

UCSB did lose its most recent bid battle to Hoover, Ala. for last year's College Cup.

"After 2010, their recommendations included that we upgrade our lockerrooms," Massari said. "They were built in 1966, and only a few things have been done since then.

"Some minor drainage things need to be fixed, too, if weather happens."

It sometimes rains even in Soccer Heaven.

A makeover of Harder Stadium's men's and women's lockerrooms has already started.

But the Gauchos also need to construct a secondary grass field to be used for College Cup practice. The teams had to go across town to Westmont College to work out in 2010.

"That was probably their strongest recommendation, that we provide a practice field nearby," Massari said. "And it needs to be the same kind of surface that they're going to play on."

He's already looking for options, although chewed-up Storke Field isn't one of them. Cleats are a double-edged sword when they're worn by acres and acres of soccer-crazy kids.

This article re-printed courtesy of the Santa Barbara News Press.

Mark Patton's column appears on Thursday and Saturday. Email: mpatton@newspress.com