By Mark Patton, Santa Barbara News-Press Senior Writer
The bar has been raised high for Nick DePuy, the marked man who is aiming at the UCSB men's soccer scoring record.
Opponents put a bull's eye on the Gauchos' target forward every time he steps onto the field.
But the bar turned out to be just a bit too low for the 6-foot-5 and 205-pound senior during last year's 3-2, NCAA Sweet 16 loss at Clemson. It's perhaps the biggest reason why you'll find him back on the Harder Stadium pitch for tonight's 7:30 home opener against the University of San Diego.
"I had a couple of shots in that game that I kind of put over the bar," DePuy recalled of the Nov. 29 match in South Carolina. "I always kick myself about that, about getting it on frame the next time.
"We all remember that Clemson game very much — it's in the back of my head all the time. We were that close to moving on, and eventually moving on to the national championship. That's why we came back, and it's why we're so hungry."
DePuy was leading the nation with 15 goals when UCSB entered last year's NCAA Tournament. His decision to turn down several professional offers has boosted the Gauchos' expectations for this season, with their national ranking climbing this week to No. 9 in Soccer America and No. 10 in the NSCAA coaches' poll.
"It's the first player of ours that I can recall was offered a really good contract — about as good as you're going to get — and turned it down," Gauchos' coach Tim Vom Steeg observed.
Doing that "was tough," DePuy admitted.
"But I've been here for three years, and we've got a good, core group returning," he said. "I have some unfinished business here.
"I want to finish my last year and I want to win a national championship and I want to leave a mark at this university."
Opponents have been leaving plenty of marks on DePuy. He was grabbed and then driven hard into the turf by the Buckeyes' Tyler Kidwell while he was attempting a header in the 1-0, overtime win over the Buckeyes. DePuy's shot glanced off the right post and caromed away.
"That was Ohio State's fifth-year captain, and they were also throwing a guy from an Irish club team (6-4 junior defender Niall Logue) at Nick, and neither one of those two big guys could stay with him," Vom Steeg pointed out. "It can get frustrating, because he's physically getting clubbed all over the place.
"It's a situation where teams know that you're really not going to stop him unless you're almost fouling him."
DePuy's refusal to flop as well as his stronger frame do make it easier for officials to overlook the abuse, especially when it happens in the 18-yard box where a penalty kick would result.
"We do all this testing in terms of body composition, and Nick has put on 20 pounds since his freshman year — and by all analysis, it's 20 pounds of muscle," Vom Steeg said. "He's not lost any speed and I think he's actually more explosive now.
"That extra 20 will help him get through a season with this kind of pounding. He's incredibly fit, too, and was running just as much in the 93rd minute at Ohio State as he was in the opening minutes."
DePuy didn't score in either of UCSB's games at Ohio State's season-opening tournament, although he did get an assist in the 2-1 triumph over Oakland. The Gauchos are 17-0-4 all-time when DePuy gets a goal or an assist.
"He has that unbelievable stat — that when he does score, we don't lose — so he's obviously the first person that teams are going to talk about on their scouting report," Vom Steeg said. "But I actually thought he played well in our first two games.
DePuy has played every position on the field for UCSB except goalkeeper and wasn't moved up to forward until midway through his sophomore season. It's a reason why Vom Steeg advised him to play one more collegiate season at the position before taking the professional plunge.
That UCSB journey from defender to midfielder to forward will eventually pay off in the pros, DePuy said.
"It's very important to be versatile, and to be familiar with each position, because you never know where you may end up," he said. "I've become a much better player, in my opinion, playing a third position.
"Having been a defender, I know what was dangerous, and since I'm a forward now, I can use my experience as a defender on what made things difficult for me."
Before his junior season, DePuy tapped into the expertise of Rob Friend, the target forward who set the Gaucho record of 20 goals in 2002 before continuing on to a decade-long pro career in Germany. He helped him especially with his headers, he added.
"I met up with him again a couple of weeks ago — he was checking in on me," DePuy said. "He's a great guy and I'm really close to him. He wants me to go after his record. He tells me all the time, 'Go after it.'"
But he'll have to do that with defenders going after him.
DePuy and the Gauchos return to Harder Stadium this weekend for a pair of matches, starting with the regular season home opener against San Diego on Friday night at 8:00 p.m. UCSB finishes the weekend with a 7:05 p.m. showdown with St. Mary's on Sunday night.