By Mark Patton, Senior Writer, Santa Barbara News-Press
It didn't take long for Ismaila Jome, a freshman from Minnesota by way of Gambia, to acclimate himself to UCSB this fall.
"I was a little homesick," he admitted, "but then I just looked at the beach and forgot about it."
Gaucho soccer coach Tim Vom Steeg felt a little sick himself at the time, having just lost left-footed star Ema Boateng to a Swedish first-division club.
But then he got a look at Ismaila Jome just two weeks later and forgot about it.
Jome was a left-footer in just the right place.
"I'd seen Ish play in two showcases, but when he came to training camp, we hadn't really seen him play in a year," Vom Steeg said. "We still kind of didn't know what we were getting.
"After the first two or three days, he was the best player at training camp. He was really kind of unbelievable."
Jome is one of the fastest-rising stars in college soccer, having earned All-Big West Conference First Team and Freshman of the Year honors this week.
It's been a whirlwind experience for the lanky, 6-foot-1 midfielder, bringing him to Harder Stadium for Friday night's Big West Tournament semifinal match against Cal State Northridge.
"I'm a long way from Minnesota," he admitted, "but I do love it. I couldn't have picked a better school. I'm even kind of scared about going back during winter break.
"We never get this kind of weather this time of year back in Minnesota."
Jome, the youngest of seven children, got his start in soccer while living on another West Coast, in Gambia's capital city of Banjul.
"I remember bits and pieces of it," he said. "My brother (Cherno) tells me stories about our playing soccer there.
"He'd make up a team and then we'd play street soccer every day."
Their father, Dodou, had studied in the United States, and he eventually earned enough to move his family there when Ismaila was 6. They settled in Brooklyn Park, on the northern outskirts of Minneapolis, where many African immigrants have settled.
Jome found himself living the American Dreamsicle.
"In winter, you've got to go into a dome if you want to practice soccer," he said. "There are a lot of teams, so you'll only get a small area of space to play in."
He didn't cross paths with Vom Steeg until he played at the Winter Academy Showcase in Florida three years ago with his club team.
"We're walking by the fields and I see this team dressed in all-white and obviously with a lot of Africans," Vom Steeg said. "I went, 'Huh, this is interesting.' Then I looked at their uniforms and they said, 'Minnesota Thunder.' I went, 'They have Africans on the Minnesota Thunder?'
"I watched them warm up and one player in particular - tall, wiry, dreads - took his first touch on the field to warm up and was like a gazelle. Even in warm-ups, you could tell that he was different."
Jome was the hottest star in one of coldest states in America, winning Minnesota's "Mr. Soccer" award after getting 37 goals and 33 assists during two seasons at Prairie Seeds Academy. The University of Connecticut was also hot after him, but all it took to sell Jome on UCSB was one internet search.
"I did my research, saw the beach and went, 'Oh! OK! I'm going to have to go there!'" he said.
UCSB's high rating - as an educational institution, not particularly as a soccer one - sold his parents, Dodou and Jainaba.
"They put academics first over soccer," said Jome, who ranked third in his class at Prairie Seeds Academy.
But it was more the warmth he felt from the Gauchos than that of the sun that clinched the deal during last year's campus visit.
"Guys like H (Achille Campion) and Goff (Goffin Boyoka) made me feel at home, and Fifi (Baiden), too, and all the guys," Jome said.
He's not the only rookie to have made an impact for the 10th-ranked Gauchos. Defender Nick DePuy received All-Big West honorable mention, and two others - midfielder Drew Murphy and goalkeeper Josh McNeely - joined them on the All-Freshman Team. Armand Bagramyan and Andy Perez have also made contributions as freshmen to UCSB's 12-4-3 season.
"We traveled 16 players up to Sac State from a 28-man roster, and we've lost our seniors, but at practice today I commented that we have all of our freshmen on the field playing," Vom Steeg said.
It was at Sacramento State where Jome kept the Gauchos undefeated in Big West play by leading a 2-1 victory. He assisted their first goal and then scored the game-winner late in the second half, showing Vom Steeg how far his fitness has come since Minnesota.
"Ish has actually gotten stronger," he said. "He was always giving us a good first half and in the second half was disappearing because of his six, seven, eight, nine runs in the first half.
"The breakthrough was the Sacramento game. Here we are with 15 minutes left, and he's giving us in the second half what he was giving us in the first half."
The coaching staff has dubbed Jome as "Spiderman" for the way the ball sticks to his feet even when he's running through a crowd.
But it's his explosive speed - Vom Steeg says it looks like his dreadlocks are exploding behind his head at times - that most catches the eye.
"He glides through, and you don't realize how fast he is until he pulls away from people," he said. "But he's also got that toughness about him. He hasn't missed one practice or one minute of the game. Not one.
"He'll go into a tackle at practice and we're like, 'Ooh, that didn't look great,' and he might step off for a minute and then step back on. In this day and age when we're losing players left and right, it's refreshing that we have a player who, as a freshman, hasn't broken down."
As good as Jome has been, ranking second on the team with six assists and tied for third in points with 10, Vom Steeg said he's only scratching the surface.
"By the time we're done working with him, he'll have his right foot, be even a little bit better in the air, and his passing will be even better," he said. "Ish has a chance over the next three years to be one of the best players to come out of UCSB, and hopefully we can keep him that long."
And that can make a kid from Minnesota feel ever warmer than that California sun.
For tickets to tomorrow night's Big West Conference Tournament Semifinal game against Cal State Northridge, call the UCSB Athletics Ticket Office at 805-893-UCSB.